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Inquirer editorial: Dallas a reminder of hard lessons of racial violence

The metamorphosis of the peaceful civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the fiery "black power" revolution promoted by Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton didn't just happen. Violence grew out of frustration with this nation's inadequate attention to intolerable conditions that continued to plague African American communities.

A Dallas police officer pauses in the aftermath of the shooting.
A Dallas police officer pauses in the aftermath of the shooting.Read moreLM OTERO / AP

The metamorphosis of the peaceful civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the fiery "black power" revolution promoted by Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton didn't just happen. Violence grew out of frustration with this nation's inadequate attention to intolerable conditions that continued to plague African American communities.

Given Thursday night's damnable assassination of five Dallas police officers in apparent retaliation for the fatal shootings of two black men by police in Baton Rouge., La., and St. Paul, Minn., one must hope this nation won't repeat history. The gunman reportedly said he "wanted to kill white people, especially white officers."

Shots rang out just blocks from Dealey Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, during a rally to protest the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul. Seven other officers and two civilians were wounded. Police said the gunman they killed after a standoff had said "he was upset about Black Lives Matter."

The rally, which had been peaceful, was organized by a former Southern Baptist minister, Jeff Hood, and the head of the Next Generation Action Network, Dominique Alexander. Hood told the Dallas Morning News that they had hoped a rally led by a white preacher and a black civil rights leader would help relieve anger. "We didn't want anyone else to die," he said. "That is the reason we did the protest."

Like King 50 years ago, they learned how difficult it is to prevent violent responses by people who believe they are being mistreated. The deaths of Sterling and Castile were the latest in a too-long list of fatal shootings of African American suspects by police, including Michael Brown, the unarmed black man shot in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. That incident sparked violent outbursts and birthed the Black Lives Matter movement.

Policing reforms were subsequently recommended by a task force appointed by President Obama and chaired by former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. But a Washington Post study released last week showed fatal shootings by police increased from 465 in the first six months of 2015 to 491 in the same period this year. Blacks are still being shot at 2.5 times the rate of whites.

Clearly more must be done to end the bloodshed, which makes this an opportune time for Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross to reconsider his decision to drop Ramsey's policy that new cops must have the equivalent of two years of college education. Studies show that officers with more education are less likely to use force.

In earlier remarks addressing the Sterling and Castile slayings, Obama noted that blacks are more likely to be pulled over, searched, arrested, and shot than whites. It's no wonder many African Americans teach their young sons to fear the police.

But no amount of bad behavior by officers who were improperly trained or motivated by racism justifies what happened Thursday night. In Obama's words, it was "a vicious, calculated, and despicable attack." The 1960s taught us that violence is no antidote to bias. We shouldn't have to relearn that lesson.