In 1945, a 46-year-old Black man was arrested in St. Augustine, Fla.
He was on his way home. Before he, his two brothers, and a friend could get there, they were stopped by a police officer and taken to jail. Three of the four were released quickly. Probably sensing the fourth man, still locked up, might be at risk, they went to get their boss, a white manager at the turpentine camp where they all worked. When the boss arrived at the jail, the fourth man was dead. He had been beaten to death in a cell by the blackjack-wielding police officer who had arrested him.
The dead man’s name was George Floyd.
There were no demonstrations after his death. No lawyer challenged the conclusion of the county coroner’s jury that Floyd had resisted arrest. No one questioned the coroner’s entry of “accident” on Floyd’s death certificate as the cause of death. A letter to the national NAACP explained that Floyd, unarmed, protested repeated searches of his person in the cell and a scuffle ensued, whereupon the arresting officer beat him to death. The NAACP, overwhelmed with similar cases, could not assist.
Today, we are acutely aware of state-sponsored racial violence. We refer to the long history of racist police killings, often knowing far too little about that history. We now pledge to support structural criminal justice reform. Dynamic and enduring solutions depend, in part, on solid data about police violence and its victims. A national database is needed today. Historical data are needed to understand our past.
For a decade, my collaborator, Margaret Burnham, director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, and I have been unearthing records that tell the stories of yesterday’s George Floyds. When we call the descendants of these men and women to share our findings, they tell us, “I never thought I’d get this call.” The scars remain, and luckily, because we have found these documents, so does proof.
Sometimes, there is just one article, often from a Black newspaper. With that one article as our first clue, we work with students of law and journalism, historians, political scientists, and law professors to fill out the story. The stories, many hundreds of them now, are particular in their details, as all stories are. However, there are important similarities across the cases. Most commonly, police officers and other law enforcement officials fail to protect the alleged suspect in their charge from a vigilante mob. Or there is a seemingly inconsequential encounter with the police, and a Black person ends up dead. Or, while in the care of the police, the detained man ends up dead. In many of these custodial cases — as in this George Floyd’s case — police reports falsely claim the suspect was armed “with a knife.”
History matters as we think about Black lives and policing today. Gunnar Myrdal, in the magisterial “An American Dilemma,” published in 1944, identifies the role played by white police in the Jim Crow era. The white officer, Myrdal wrote, “stands not only for civic order as defined in formal laws and regulations, but also for ‘white supremacy’ and the whole set of social customs associated with this concept.” That civic order, one of racial segregation and subordination by law and custom, was to be maintained by the police. And the police were expected to be vigilant in their work. Myrdal’s description also implicates white Southern society. After all, they were the ones who called the police when a Black person had allegedly committed a crime or was “out of line.” The police did little to Black Americans that white Americans did not want done.
Today’s demands that policing and criminal justice be reformed must be understood as the demands befitting a democratic civic order. The civil rights movement sought to democratize America. Now we must finish the work of that great social movement and democratize policing. And, as we do so, we must not forget the thousands of Black victims of police violence whose graves lay unmarked and lives unsung. Know their names.
Melissa Nobles is a professor of political science and Kenan Sahin dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.