A Culture of Violence

Revisiting the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. in a time of police shootings and church murders

In this issue, we’ve published the winner of the annual high-school essay contest that The Atlantic is conducting with the College Board. Nicolas Yan, who is 17, was certainly not the only young writer to take as his subject Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech during the March on Washington, but he distinguished his work with the subtlety of his analysis and the sensitivity with which he evoked the moment: the summer heat, the restlessness of the crowd, the violence then building around King and the civil-rights movement. Reading this essay might also evoke, in some readers, memories of what it was like to be awakening to one’s powers as a teenager, and to be stirred by King’s genius, and the promise of his dream.

Not every child has the same reaction. Growing up in the 1980s in West Baltimore, Ta-Nehisi Coates was more puzzled than moved by King’s message. It had so little bearing on the terrorized world he knew, a world where a child with a gun had “the power to banish other children to memory.” As Coates writes in his new book, Between the World and Me—adapted in this issue in “Letter to My Son”—Black History Month could not go by without perplexing paeans to the virtues of turning the other cheek, without “a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera.” Yet most other signals in his life informed him that violence was the force most to be respected, if not honored. His childhood was governed by violence and shaped by the fear of it. “How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?”

Even though crime rates have declined, the brutality Coates feared as a child has continued to plague inner cities across the United States. In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made it his mission to stop the killing. Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Landrieu is horrified by what he sees as national indifference to murder on an epidemic scale: “We have basically given up on our African American boys,” he told Goldberg. He is taking pains to understand what he calls a culture of violence among young black men. “If I could just understand why these guys did what they did,” Landrieu muttered as he toured the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where the fathers and grandfathers of thousands of New Orleans children are imprisoned, many for life.

Coates sees no great mystery here. He sees instead a deep history of white violence stretching back centuries, to the start of the slave trade, and forward through Jim Crow and the systematic impoverishment of black families. The violence of the inner city, in his reading, is not isolated but deeply connected to the society surrounding it, an inevitable result of deliberate policy choices.

Given this history, given that King’s own pursuit of nonviolence was met with a bullet to the head, what should maybe mystify us more—more than gun-toting teenagers or even the occasional riot in the wake of a police killing—is the enduring culture of nonviolence. Could there be a more astonishing proof of the abiding power of King’s dream than the immediate forgiveness voiced by many of the families of the worshippers gunned down this June in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Or of the dream’s abiding promise, that a black president would summon from their sacrifice a note of national grace? And yet again, will any of that really make a difference in West Baltimore, or in New Orleans?

Mayor Landrieu is doing everything he can. Still, it is hard not to conclude that policy decisions already made in Louisiana, and across the United States, are conspiring against him. To me, Goldberg’s reporting suggests that there is just one truly formidable social program for the lost souls of New Orleans—one costly initiative to buttress them with job skills and mentors, and deprive them of the arms and ammunition that society otherwise readily supplies. It is called Angola prison. How the United States came to make this fateful choice will be the subject of Coates’s next essay, this fall.