“The reaction to Bloody Sunday did move us a little further down the road in the struggle for racial justice and human rights,” said Lawrence Burnley, vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of Dayton. “My hope and prayer is that George Floyd’s murder and the reaction to it will move us further down this very long and painful road.”
History of Bloody Sunday
On a Sunday morning in March 1965, John Lewis — now a U.S. Representative from Georgia — was leading a group of about 600 peaceful marchers from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest anti-voting laws aimed at Black people.
As the unarmed protesters started the nearly 50 mile trek, Alabama state troopers attacked them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when the group refused to disperse. Some troopers on horseback trampled them while others beat people with billy clubs and sprayed them with tear gas. Dozens of the marchers were seriously injured, including Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture.
The incident was broadcast on national TV and later seen worldwide. Americans, particularly those in the North who either ignored the violence against Black people at the time or said they weren’t aware, watched the brutality first-hand in their living rooms.
The Bloody Sunday attack angered people, sparking calls for more change, as the Civil Rights Bill had been enacted the previous year. Eight days after the attack, President Lydon B. Johnson introduced a bill to Congress, and in August 1965 the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
Extraordinarily diverse, global response
Like Bloody Sunday, there’s been an “extraordinarily diverse” and global response in the wake of Floyd’s killing, Burnley said.
Floyd’s death came on the heels of several killings of Black men and women, many of which were captured on video.
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Ahmaud Arbery was shot to death as he jogged in a Georgia town, and a retired law enforcement officer and his son have been charged with murder. In addition, Breonna Taylor was killed when a Louisville officer fired 10 shots into her apartment during a raid.
These recent killings and several more have angered people, Burnley said, and that’s contributed to the global response in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“So there are parallels between the reaction to George Floyd’s murder and Bloody Sunday,” said Burnley, who is also a historian.
So is Floyd’s death this generation’s Bloody Sunday? Will it lead to impactful policy changes that end injustices against Black people and other people of color? Burnley and some other area experts say they are hopeful, while others said time will tell.
However, they all agreed that it is a defining moment for the nation. Millions of people watched the video of now ex-Officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as the man said repeatedly that he couldn’t breathe. Like the Bloody Sunday attack, the country can no longer ignore or deny that police brutality exists, local officials said.
No alternative narrative for George Floyd’s death
The rest of the country is feeling the anger that Black people have felt for decades after previous police killings, said Michael Carter, senior adviser to the president and chief diversity officer at Sinclair Community College. In recent years when Blacks have died at the hands of police, some people rationalized the killings, he said, even when they were caught on video.
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For instance, he said, the deaths of Philando Castile and Tamir Rice, both of which occurred in the past six years, were caught on video. But the police officers who shot them were not convicted.
He also pointed to Taylor’s death, which the officers justified by saying her boyfriend shot at them, although they entered the couple’s apartment unannounced.
“Black people knew in their minds what the stories were for those,” Carter said. “But I think (the Floyd killing) was the first time that there was no alternative narrative that could be created. That is in our faces, and what that brings is — now you’ve got a decision to make. Once you see that, where do you stand? And I think that is what has been brought to bear in the recent incident.”
Burnley agreed. Bloody Sunday was a flash point in the Civil Rights Movement, he said. For the first time, television brought into homes the unbridled violence of police on peaceful, largely Black people marching to end racial segregation and other injustices.
“The visual evidence of violence that had been reported on, preached about and written about pierced the denial and dismissal by many,” he said. “The proof of the violence was made undeniable and served to shock thousands, which resulted in a relatively massive, diverse (race and class) response.”
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The video of Floyd’s murder functioned in a similar manner, Burnley said. Today’s technology, including social media and the reach of the video once again made “visual” a sustained act of violence against an unarmed Black man.
“This of course, sadly and tragically, was not an anomaly,” he said. “The list of unarmed Black and Brown men and women who’ve been killed by law enforcement and vigilantes has a long history. People have reported on this pattern of behavior, preached about it, marched and protested to end it. Still, many have been silent, in denial, refuted the problem or chose to ignore the unjust and unlawful behavior that seldom resulted in prosecution.”
Cause for optimism
Many people, particularly whites who previously denied that racism exists in the country or perhaps practiced willful ignorance, have joined Black people in fighting for justice after watching the Floyd video.
That’s cause for optimism and an indication that, like Bloody Sunday, the Floyd killing will be a pivotal moment in history, said the Rev. Rockney Carter, senior pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Dayton.
Throughout American history, Black people have had to take the lead in fighting for equal rights. However, significant policy changes such as the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights Act came to fruition with the help of white people who control government and the power structure, said Rockney Carter. Just as the brutality of Bloody Sunday touched white people’s conscience more than 50 years ago, Floyd’s death has done the same.
“With everything that goes on in the polarization of this country, white people might not get involved in it, and if white people don’t get involved in it, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “So we understood that what we saw (on May 25) with the brutal assassination, the murdering of George Floyd in broad view, if you had a conscience, if you had half of a heart, it bothered you.”
Although Floyd’s death was a tragedy, it’s starting to have a positive impact on the country, Rockney Carter and others said. In addition to the worldwide protests, there’s been a dialogue on race at nearly every level. Corporations are having candid conversations among their employees about race, and senior leaders in the U.S. military have had similar forums among themselves and their service members.
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement in June saying the league was wrong for not supporting Colin Kaepernick and other players who took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. The commissioner has also urged teams to sign Kaepernick, and said the league will not discourage players from kneeling if the upcoming season is not cancelled because of the COVID-19.
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At least nine cities across the country, including Minneapolis, have banned police officers from putting suspects in choke holds. Bills on police reform have been introduced in Congress, and President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order on police reform. However, critics say Trump’s bill doesn’t go far enough.
“There was outrage over (previous police) killings, but not many people stepped past the outrage, and I see many people stepping past the outrage with this,” said Sinclair’s Michael Carter, no relation to Rockney Carter. “So people are making statements, people who have been tone-deaf are recognizing their tone deafness and calling themselves out. Roger Goodell called the NFL out. People are recognizing how tone-deaf they’ve been to racial injustice. This is the first time in a long time that people are recognizing they’re tone-deafness.”
It’s frustrating that after all the killings and calls within the Black community through the years to end police brutality, some white people are now apologizing, said Jack Thomas, Central State University president. It makes one think, “Why now?” he said.
“You’ve known this all these years,” Thomas said. “People are writing letters now in various communities saying, ‘We don’t accept this.’ What about what just happened, or five years ago, or two years ago, a year ago or what’s happening now in your own community? There are things happening in our community everyday. It’s popular now to write letters and to speak out. You should speak out everyday.”
Floyd’s death was so horrific that it has to garner change, Rockney Carter said. Black people have been calling for police reform for years, he said. It’s great that various entities are finally talking about it and companies and institutions have said they will change decades-old derogatory images of Black people on their products and drop names of known racists from buildings.
While the handful of changes that have occurred in the months since Floyd’s death, meaningful policy changes to end injustices against people of color will be more impactful, Rockney Carter said. Those changes should include police reforms that hold officers accountable for committing crimes such as murder, said Rockney Carter, who is also a lawyer. Those officers should be held to the same standards as other citizens, he said, and police departments should be barred from conducting “sham” investigations of their own.
Area experts hope that if Floyd’s death and the reaction is this generation’s Bloody Sunday, it will bring about impactful policy changes that will last for generations, like the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act have done.
“I believe this atmosphere now is different,” Thomas said. “This is something that’s different. You can feel it. And so we have to react differently. That means that we have to demand change, and that change is now.”