By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
The Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. was unarmed when he stepped onto the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he was shot and killed in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Few could have predicted a single bullet’s impact. But the quest for racial equality imperceptibly changed after a single rifle bullet was fired into Dr. King’s lower jaw at 6:01 p.m., and he was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. at St. Joseph Hospital in Memphis, according to the House Select Committee on Assassinations’ report.
The shift from the old to the new Civil Rights Movement did not become evident until about four decades later when another unarmed Black male was shot and killed. This time, the shooting victim was Trayvon Martin, whose killing made headlines in 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Martin, 17, was unarmed, and walking home from a 7-Eleven with a newly purchased bag of Skittles and an iced tea, when he was shot in the chest and killed by 28-year-old George Zimmerman.
“One of the most important things that came out of this tragedy was the activation of an entire new generation of civil rights leaders,” former President Barack Obama said in a February 2022 video, during the tenth anniversary of the shooting death of the younger Martin (not the elder MLK). “It was grass roots. It was powered by social media. It was participatory,” he said.
“The legacy is not just outrage,” said Obama, who was serving in the White House when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in 2012. “I hope it was the start of America looking inward.”
As the nation observes the King federal holiday on Jan. 16—which would have been Dr. King’s 94th birthday (that actually falls on Jan. 15)—it is impossible to overlook the striking similarities that came on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Trayvon Martin’s high-profile shootings. After Dr. King’s death on April 4,1968, for example, riots broke out in over 100 American cities. But three days after Dr. King was murdered, Coretta Scott King led thousands of grieving marchers through Memphis, thanks to a controversial court order that U.S. District Judge Bailey Brown had signed on April 5 that permitted the march in Memphis. In keeping with the court order, marchers walked in rows of six, guided by marshals with walkie-talkies. There was no violence.
The point is the nation had already arrived at a clear fork in the road the night King was shot and killed. Aiming to pinpoint the shift, Floyd McKissick, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, told The New York Times the night King was shot and killed, “Nonviolence is a dead philosophy and it was not the Black people that killed it. It was the White people that killed nonviolence and White racists at that.”
However, two years before he was shot and killed, King sensed that the nation had already arrived at a clear fork in the road. “It may be true that the system of segregation is on its deathbed,” King said in a 1966 speech at Illinois Wesleyan University. “But history has proven that social systems always have a last minute, a strong breathing power. And the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.”
Jim Crow Signs Vanished
White and colored signs were moved to museums as a result of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King and members of his generation. Blacks gained civil rights that allowed them to sit at lunch counters, stay in formerly all-white hotels, and apply for jobs that were once reserved for whites. Blacks moved to the suburbs and protestors slowly vanished from the nation’s city streets after Dr. King’s 1968 murder. But BlackLivesMatter protestors would return to the nation’s busiest public streets about eight years after the 2013 Zimmerman not-guilty verdict was announced in Trayvon’s murder.
In other words, the protest methods of Dr. King’s Civil Rights Movement-era suddenly resurfaced in mid-2020, after an unarmed George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. Suddenly, BlackLivesMatter protestors were spotted at several busy intersections nationwide.
BlackLivesMatter protestors blocked traffic in April 2020 in Los Angeles at the intersection of Third Street and Fairfax Avenue. In July 2020, BlackLivesMatter protestors blocked traffic on the FDR Drive in New York City and made their way through the city. A month earlier, in June 2020, BlackLivesMatter protestors in San Francisco blocked traffic for more than two hours on the Bay Bridge.
The trend continued during the summer of 2020.
The point is the death of another unarmed Black man breathed fresh life into the now-listless Civil Rights Movement that Dr. King headed in the 1960’s. Did Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict and Floyd’s wildly televised public killing actually birth the BlackLivesMatter era?
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Four polls show that about two months after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, millions of Americans participated in public protests.
Specifically, a July 2020 Civics Analytics poll suggested that about 15 million to 26 million people in the U.S. had participated in recent protests in the United States over the death of George Floyd and others who had been shot and killed in recent weeks. Civics Analytics is a data science firm that works with businesses and Democratic campaigns.
According to The New York Times, “These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history, according to interviews with scholars and crowd-counting experts,” including Neal Caren, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies social movements in the United States.
“I’ve never seen self-reports of protest participation that high for a specific issue over such a short period,” Caren told The New York Times, in a story that examined four polls, which measured protest participation. Specifically, four public participation polls were released in June 2020 by Kaiser Family Foundation, Civics Analytics, NORC, and The Pew Research Center. They showed millions of Americans participated in public protests after Floyd was killed.
“While it’s possible that more people said they protested than actually did, even if only half told the truth, the surveys suggest more than seven million people participated in recent demonstrations,” The New York Times noted.
The point is the killing of Dr. King, Trayvon Martin and George Floyd “activated” an entire new generation of civil rights leaders, as Obama pointed out on the tenth anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death in a video that included the Rev. Al Sharpton and Harvard Professor Dr. Louis Gates Jr., who hosts the PBS TV series, called Finding Your Roots.
Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder and Floyd’s 2020 death not only launched widespread protests–their deaths motivated more African American families to file a record number of wrongful-death lawsuits that have already yielded multi-million dollar awards.
Instead of organizing protest marches, aggrieved Blacks began to file legal complaints after Dr. King’s death. Government documents show more civil rights complaints were filed a few decades after King was shot and killed in 1968. Specifically, the number of civil-rights lawsuits filed in U.S. district courts increased from 16,310 in 1990 to a peak of 40,361 in 1997. Between 2004 and 2006 the number of filings declined 19 percent, from 37,374 to 30,405. All categories of civil rights filings exhibited a decline over this two-year period. This means King’s death opened more doors of economic opportunities to Blacks, but the rise in opportunities led to more legal complaints between private parties, which more than tripled from 6,936 in 1990 to 21,540 in 1998.
Now, take a look at the increased number of wrongful death lawsuits that were filed after Trayvon Martin and George Floyd were killed.
For example, in April 2013 Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, settled a wrongful-death lawsuit against the homeowners’ association in the gated community where their son, Trayvon Martin was killed. The amount of the settlement was not revealed. As is customary in such settlements, the association admitted no guilt in Martin’s death and all parties are bound to confidentiality.
However, Martin’s parents rejected a $1 million offer, said Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s criminal lawyer. Negotiations later resumed and the two sides ultimately reached an agreement. The Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America is the association’s insurer.
About eight years after Trayvon Martin’s family received a multi-million dollar wrongful death suit settlement, George Floyd’s family settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis for a record $27 million in March 2021. Floyd family attorney Ben Crump said the settlement “sends a powerful message that Black lives do matter and police brutality against people of color must end.”
More Black families launched wrongful-death lawsuits. For example, the family of Anton Black, the African American teenager who died after being chased and roughly handled by police in Maryland, received a partial $5 million wrongful death settlement in August 2022. Three Eastern Shore towns paid the family of the deceased Black gunshot victim $5 million and also instituted changes, according to news reports. In September 2021, the city of Louisville, Ky., agreed to pay Breonna Taylor’s family $12 million and reform police practices. (Taylor was shot to death in March 2020 by officers acting on a no-knock warrant).
More wrongful-death lawsuits were filed in court. For example, the family of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald, who was shot and killed by Chicago police in 2014, sued for $16 million — a million for every bullet — but settled for $5 million. The family of Freddie Gray, age 25, who was killed while in police custody in Baltimore, agreed to a $6.4 million settlement with the city in September 2015. Philando Castile’s mother reached a $3 million settlement and his girlfriend was paid $800,000 by the city of St. Anthony and others. (Castile was shot and killed by an officer in St. Anthony, Minn., in 2016).
The struggle for equality and justice headed in a brand-new direction after a single bullet killed Dr. King and Trayvon Martin. While no can say with certainty that the shift occurred because Dr. King worked with many prominent and well-connected White and Black attorneys, this fact alone may have fueled the new litigation mindset that is slowly changing the trajectory of Dr. King’s 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.
This month, a single bullet’s impact will probably not be the title of a single keynote speech at annual King holiday events that will be held in Hampton Roads and throughout the nation. But the single rifle bullet that shattered Dr. King’s jaw and killed him–well it also shattered the nation’s conscience to the point that more people opened their eyes and discovered the road less traveled, after Dr. King’s death. Does the nation owe a debt to countless attorneys who worked behind the scenes to change many of the discriminatory laws that Dr. King and his supporters protested against?
In other words, did a cadre of highly-skilled lawyers quietly toil behind the scenes and direct the nation to The Road Not Taken, a famous poem written by Robert Frost?
“Two roads diverged in a wood,” Frost wrote. “I took the one less traveled. And that has made all the difference.”