Last August, some observers drew comparisons between the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. The announcement on December 3 that a Staten Island grand jury had chosen not to indict the policeman who choked Eric Garner to death might indicate that we are closer to 1963—when a series of devastating setbacks and the subsequent widespread outrage transformed the civil rights struggle. There was a perfect storm this past month: the continuing fallout from a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson in Ferguson; the identical outcome in the Garner case; a Cleveland newspaper’s efforts to discredit and sling mud at the parents of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy also killed by police. This moment has the potential to catapult change, just as a series of events did eight years after Till’s death.
The 1963 murder of four black girls at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church hit Americans square in the chest, reminding them of the Jim Crow system of justice in which black people had no rights that whites were bound to respect. The little girls were killed in September of that year in a place already dubbed “Bombingham” for the level of violent racist backlash against the city’s small progressive steps. Martin Luther King Jr. had been jailed there in the spring. Medgar Evers had been assassinated that summer in Mississippi. We find ourselves at a similar moment fifty years later—with “Again?” on our lips and a familiar feeling of horror at the video of Officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Garner to death, the unsparing force he uses against a man gasping over and over again, “I can’t breathe.”