Dear Dr. King,
I’ve played your “mountaintop” speech many times in the last few days. You’re most famous for your “I have a dream” speech but it’s the mountaintop one that always gets me. It gives me chills and makes my eyes well up. I think you knew intuitively that you were in your last days but it didn’t concern you. You said God had allowed you to go up the mountain, to look over, to see the promise land, and you had an unshakeable faith that we were going to get there.
I’m curious about this mountaintop, especially this promise land you spoke of nearly 50 years ago, the night before you were assassinated.
I keep trying to imagine what vision you saw, what majestic black freedom imagery sent you to your death in peace.
I’ve also played a lot of Tupac lately. Strange auditory bedfellows perhaps, but last year, during this same week, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Snoop Dogg described him as “Strong and vulnerable; hard-headed and intellectual; courageous and afraid; loving, and vengeful; revolutionary and…gangsta.” He described him as, “a strong Black man who stood for his.”
Still, I’m not sure you would have liked Tupac. Or maybe on some level, you likely would have appreciated the way he was able to tell our story, to articulate the intimacy of black suffering in a way that made us feel empowered, not exposed.
We are, you know, still being slaughtered. I know you leveraged the visuals of our suffering to wage a moral war in this country. The problem is, we have the images. The videos. We have the 21st century version of attack dogs and hoses. The entire country often watches black death loop in a tragic screenplay, scored with the wails of childless mothers and the entitled indifference of our murderers. They are unmoved.
Tupac may have said it best: “I’m watching my nation die, genocide the cause…they don’t give a f— about us.”
I heard Alton Sterling’s mother, Veda Washington-Abusaleh, comment on the fact Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has decided the state will not charge police officers who killed her son.
“He was murdered by two white, white racist police officers. He was murdered like an animal, and they say they don’t see nothing wrong. They say they didn’t see anything wrong. You saw the videos, but they say they didn’t see nothing wrong. I can’t understand it.”
I am also thinking about the ongoing protests in Sacramento, California, for Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old father murdered in broad daylight in his grandmother’s backyard. I keep hearing the 20 shots echo in my inner ear followed by an eerie silence. The absence of breath. I am thinking about a picture of him I saw, where he was sleeping sweetly with his two young children draped across his body.
I am also thinking of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Korryn Gaines, Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Charleena Lyles, Tamir Rice, and the countless other black children and adults who have been killed by police, many without the “proof” of video. I was in seventh grade when my innocence was pierced as I watched Rodney King viciously beat nearly to death. I learned then that having video is useless if they can’t actually “see” what was recorded.
Why can’t they can’t see the way Alton Sterling’s mother sees?
I am also thinking of Herman Bell, a 70-year-old former Black Panther convicted of killing two New York police officers, recently granted parole after serving nearly 45 years in prison. Instead of praising the parole board for making a difficult but legally correct decision, those who are supposed to represent the law, raged, calling for the firing of the board members who voted for his release.
I am thinking about the president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), saying, “We’re gonna get you, we don’t care why you’re behind bars, we just care that you are behind bars.” The “law” calling for vigilante justice? Really?
And I am thinking again about Tamir Rice, 12, and others like him and how NONE of their killers will ever spend one day behind bars.
Tupac thought about it, too: “Cops give a damn about a Negro. Pull the trigger, kill a nigga he’s a hero.”
The truth is, the reality of differential valuing of life hasn’t changed since we were legally considered property. While clearly our legal status has changed, in the white imaginary, we remain disposable things. That’s why Betty Shelby shot unarmed Terence Crutcher to death because in the dominant American narrative, he is dangerous in and of himself. He doesn’t need a weapon to be a threat. We are always already the proverbial boogey man.
So we’re at an impasse. Black people want to be recognized as people. Black mothers want our babies’ lives to be valued the same way police lives are valued.
We want the world to stop asking us to be calm, stop asking us to forgive. We want impossible justice.
So what can we do Dr. King to make people recognize our humanity? Or in Tupac’s powerfully blunt words: “When they ask me, when will the violence cease? When your troops stop shootin niggas down in the street.”
I am thinking about the promise land you saw and your unshakeable faith we would get there. And I am also thinking about the tragically perfect way Tupac articulated what it meant that we hadn’t made it yet.
So I write this to you with love and respect. But I am overwhelmed with pain, loss and grief, while holding on to a notion of investing in our own. Maybe we can reframe your promise land in a way that makes sense for our generation – to channel black love and rage into meaningful change.
In that sense, it’s not about convincing the world that black lives matter Maybe climbing the mountaintop is about pouring our energy into developing and sustaining our own institutions. Maybe the promise land is not something we get to — but something we build.
–kihana miraya ross
kihana miraya ross, a Public Voices Fellow, is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Institute of Urban Policy Research & Analysis.