It is fitting to honor the memory of Martin Luther King with a holiday. Tomorrow, when I return to school, I plan in equally appropriate fashion to discuss with my students the significance and contribution of this important man. In addition to biographical facts, I will stress a few important principles–most importantly, that of nonviolence.
Inspired by the religious figure of Jesus and the historical example of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King insisted on a brand of civil disobedience that rejected physical retaliation. His followers, and indeed a significant part of the civil rights movement of his era, had a clear understanding of what this required as well as what it represented. Civil disobedience actually depended on oppressors visiting unjust consequences upon demonstrators. The wrongdoers, then, unwittingly drew attention to the injustices they perpetrated and undermined the political will behind it.
Similarly, nonviolence involved the clear understanding that protesters ran the risk of getting hurt or killed. Rather than fight back, demonstrators hoped that by enduring violence they could create a conflict in the minds and hearts of their oppressors. This conflict would enable some of the assailants to understand the evil they were going. It would also provoke dissonance in the minds of bystanders and of supporters of the oppressors.
Many people today see the assassination of King as a critical blow from which the civil rights movement never fully recovered. This certainly demonstrates the importance one leader can have. Since this loss nearly 50 years ago, no single leader of such a high profile has emerged to take King’s place, and racial inequality and injustices persist, even if they are no longer officially upheld by law.
Still, many great leaders outlived King, and some from his day–John Lewis is a notable example–are still with us. Beyond that, the movement today represents more than just equal rights for blacks and whites; it promotes the rights of women, immigrants, the LGBT community, and people of all distinctions. Also, we should not overlook the reality that many laws and policies have come into force to protect groups of people who, just a generation ago, might not have dreamed of such protection.
And for all this, the essential concepts of nonviolence and civil disobedience do not come across as clearly. If the media played an important role in King’s day in getting word and images out to the nation, those same media and new ones appear tainted at times by sensationalism. Worse, the persistence of civil rights abuses and the media images they create almost seem at times to desensitize the public.
Wishing I had more answers to the questions all of this would raise, I feel I must provoke as much discussion as possible among the generation that will inherit these challenges. There is still a lot of work ahead.