As Black History Month once again invites us to ponder the current state of social justice for African-Americans and other minorities, we might remember that, near the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. had come to focus on three social justice concerns: Racism, poverty and violence.
Like Gandhi, he had followed the path of nonviolence throughout his years leading the civil rights struggle. He experienced and witnessed gun violence that took the lives of many supporters. It is not surprising, then, that he would have spoken out on a subject on the minds of many Americans today.
New York Police Department Lt. Philip Romano, who was instrumental in saving King’s life in 1958 when a mentally deranged woman stabbed him with a sharpened letter opener at a book signing, said recently something to the effect that if she had been armed with an automatic pistol, King would have died, and probably so would have Romano and his partner at the scene.
Romano prevented panicked onlookers from removing the weapon from King’s chest, saving his life and, thus, allowing him to give his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech five years later.
Were King alive today, to see his dreams realized, including the election and re-election of a black (actually, biracial) president, we can only wonder how he would respond to the gun violence and controversy over gun control measures.
We do have a clue from King’s reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy three months after the “I have a dream” speech: “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero, the one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
Five years later, a decade after the stabbing attempt on his life, King was assassinated by a rifle bullet.
Toward the end of his life, King had become more convinced that the violence of the Vietnam War was an unjustified attempt to impose the will of the United States on a population that had already thrown off French Colonial rule at great cost and was unyielding in opposing what they saw as another colonial invasion. He saw that in this country, this injustice especially affected the poor people, who were disproportionately people of color, since such a high proportion of fighting and dying was done by these poor and minority soldiers.
He also saw that the huge cost of war had siphoned off the funding for President Johnson’s War on Poverty here at home.
King would probably be pained by today’s incredible use of resources, both financial and human, for two endless wars. He no doubt would appreciate Gary Trudeau’s explicit comment on this in a recent strip in which his radio news analyst character reminds listeners that our response to the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 people was that “we started two long, bloody wars and built a vast homeland security apparatus – all at a cost of trillions.” He adds that in the same nine years, 270,000 Americans were killed by guns at home. And that at the same time, gun laws were weakened.
Yes, King would be saddened and perhaps discouraged by the continual eruptions of gun violence such as the appalling massacre of children in Newtown, Conn.
Sixth-graders in Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School were asked to write about what King’s message would be today on gun violence, and some of their responses were printed in the Jan. 21 Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
One 11-year-old wrote: “I think that if Dr. Martin Luther King was here today with all of our gun-control problems, he would say that we share a world and that we should use our minds to do things to create peace. We should help those who are troubled, not create weapons that the angry can use to harm others.”
Another classmate wrote in part: “What would he do? We can guess. We can brainstorm. But the violence is now. The hate is now. What can we do? There are many different opinions … One is to elongate gun tests. Another is to only let the military have guns. But the one I think King would follow is to have none at all. People say we need guns for protection. Is the world really so horrid that to rid ourselves of violence, we need more violence?”
There are other eloquent young sixth-graders quoted at length, and to read them is to be moved by their hopefulness.
We hope that their hopefulness is not misplaced. We would like to think that in the wake of the horrible massacre of children in Newtown, President Obama might succeed in persuading the public to persuade Congress to act to curb the virtually unlimited access to military-style weapons.
Gladys M. Clifton, Ph.D., is retired after 20 years in the Humanities Division at Pitt-Johnstown. She is second vice president of Johnstown branch, NAACP. For 11 years, she was host of the cable-TV program “NAACP Perspectives.”
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