Restoring the Dream of Nonviolence

Today we celebrate the life and vision of a man who preached non-violence. This year, however, we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. on the heels of a horrifically violent event, just nine days after a gunman opened fire at a public shopping center, during a community outreach event intended to inspire civic discourse. 

That the leader of that event was a woman elected to public office is a fact now so commonplace, it has gone unmentioned. But it was so uncommon for a woman to hold public office in Dr. King’s day, that it was surely part of the dream he envisioned.  After all, two of the “four children” he spoke of so eloquently of at the Lincoln Memorial, capping the Great March on Washington in 1963, were daughters. He spoke of the equality he dreamed they would someday enjoy, regardless of race, creed, color:

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

Of course, the African American Civil Rights Movement was first, and foremost about color. But as the years went on, the movement grew. It became about poverty, employment, housing discrimination, even the war in Vietnam. In short, Americans looked to the movement and to Dr. King for hope, change and the promise of equality for all Americans. They joined hands — black, brown and white; Jews and gentiles; men and women — all working toward a better day for their children and their children’s children. 

So when Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who just happens to be a woman and Jewish, reached out to her constituents for a “Congress on Your Corner” event in 2011, it was precisely the kind of moment Dr. King envisioned for this country. 

Dr. King knew, however, he would not live to see that day. He understood, all too well, the violent undercurrent that runs through our culture. He knew America’s history of settling her disputes with guns, not words.  He knew the history of political assassination in this country. The day before his death, he spoke these words: 

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to … talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me ...? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. … And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

The next day, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot and killed. 

I was just a toddler when Dr. King was assassinated, but everything about that day has informed my life. I was one of those children who believed in the dream, believed we might one day live in a country in which we would not be judged by the color of our skin or by any other immutable characteristic. That is precisely why Dr. King’s death tore a hole our heart.   With his death, we feared, dreams of equality would be lost as well. But they were not.

Dr. King had a voice so full of hope, so powerful it shattered the chains of oppression, even after he was gone. Thanks to the power of that voice, even after his death, we have come a long way: Representation on the Supreme Court — women, African Americans, and most recently, the first Latina. Three women have been the face of America overseas as Secretary of State, one of them African American. Her predecessor was a black man as well, who served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before that.  Blacks are represented in the highest sectors of business, academia and the arts. And of course, most significantly, we have our first African American President. It is good. But it is not good enough. 

Dr. King’s message of nonviolence seems to have been lost on too many of us. The dream of nonviolence died a small death with Dr. King on the day he was shot and killed. And his dream has died a little bit with each day thereafter, as we struggle to find leadership to fill the void. 

He’d lived long enough to see the murders of Malcolm X and voting rights organizer Medgar Evers. But Dr. King did not live to see the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. He did not live to see the murder of John Lennon or the shooting attempts on Presidents Ford and Reagan. And he missed the bizarre national phenomenon of gun violence that spawned the expression, "going postal," as citizens kill their managers, co-workers, fellow students, police officers and members of the general public in acts of mass murder.  

Dr. King did not live to see the day that Congresswoman Giffords nearly lost her life, the day that a sitting federal judge, a nine year-old girl and four others were murdered. He did not live to see the day that thirteen of Giffords' constituents were wounded, at an event meant to bring them together for community dialogue.  

The ugly violence continues, whether with legally obtained weapons, as in Tucson last week, or with the saturation of our urban centers with illegal firearms. 

A national holiday is nice; but it is not enough. To honor and respect the memory of Dr. King, those massacred in Arizona and all Americans who have lost their lives to senseless violence, we must show the courage on the issue of gun control. 

On this day, let us pick up the mantle of nonviolence.

Jami Floyd is a broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.