45 Years After the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,: Observing an Anniversary

The following remarks are excerpted from a speech I delivered to Carnegie Mellon University on Martin Luther King Day.  Because these are speech excerpts, many citations to quotes are excluded….Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted liberally throughout these remarks. 

….On April 4th of this year, we will observe the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King…since then our country has witnessed  considerable social change and progress in some areas, most notably evidenced in our twice electing a black man to the presidency, the slow but sure increase in the number of women and racial minorities ascending to powerful positions in government, corporations, advisory firms, NGOs and academic institutions, the increase in the number of and societal acceptance of interracial couples, and the slow, but sure recognition of the rights of gay men and women…

Still, as a nation, in many ways we are failing, it is striking how little we have progressed since 1968, almost slipping backward on certain social issues.  Rather than mitigating, or better yet, ending violence of all kinds in our communities and schools, and in our hearts and minds, as Martin Luther King would have wanted us to do, we have allowed it to continue and in many ways to worsen. …. And we have tabled, seemingly indefinitely, our commitment to genuinely improved race relations, to studying and understanding race, racism and the impact of our country’s racist past on society today… 

We are failing to honor the legacy and sacrifice of Dr. King, the freedom fighters, and all those who died in pursuit of the expansion of justice–those men and women who advocated for an end to violence, and for a more thoroughly integrated nation …we are failing to honor the Civil Rights Movement, it’s values, ideals and achievements…and in so failing to honor that legacy, we are failing to remember who we are as a country and our responsibility to build a better future for those coming behind us.

Treating the successes of the Civil Rights Movement as definite and permanent, failing to see that it’s accomplishments, though critically important, were fragile and in need of further support and care…to many of us, too soon, celebrated our freedom and the newfound societal recognition of our humanity…we have grown complacent and relaxed… focused on ourselves, our own lives, our own rights, our own liberties, and have lost sight of what it is to live in community… As a nation, we’ve replaced aspiration with consumption,… we have shortsightedly assumed that the seventh day has come and that for us, it is our time to sit back and rest, when instead we should be investing vigorously in our communities with ever greater vigilance and persistence.

Our nation, I worry, is at risk of losing it’s sense of self, forgetting our values, our character, our resilience and endurance…those things that have made our country what it is and have inspired peoples throughout the world.

Once seen as a beacon of hope, justice, possibility and humanity by our friends and allies around the world, the US is increasingly seen as a violent and dangerous culture…and for good reason:

  • Among the O.E.C.D. countries the World Bank classifies as “high income,” America has the highest gun homicide rate and the highest rate of death due to assault…. America has more homicides by gun than all of the other high income OECD countries combined.
  • If a gun is used during a domestic violence assault, there is a 23 fold increased likelihood that the victim will die.  Women who are victims of domestic violence are five times more likely to be killed if their abuser owns a firearm.
  • When a person kills another in the US, he or she typically uses a gun.  60% of US homicides involve the use of a gun.
  • In an unwelcome form of American “exceptional-ism”:  America also has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.  While it appears true that the number of households owning guns has declined, the number of guns per household overall, has increased.  According to a 2007 Small Arms Survey, there is an average of 88 guns per 100 people in America. 
  • The website “stoptheshootings.org” has recorded 387 school shootings since 1992, and notes that children between the ages of 5 and 14 in America are thirteen times more likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries.  This should be absolutely unacceptable.  And though no school shootings have been recorded in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, school shootings have occurred in 42 other states.
  • And if these statistics, which I’m sure you’ve heard elsewhere in the days since Newtown, and the months since Aurora…if the above statistics aren’t enough to consider…consider that in the first decade of this still young century, more than 298,000 people died from gun shots in the US.  That is more than 30,000 human beings in this country dead, each year…from gun violence.

30,000 people a year.  Dead.  That is a little more than 10 times the number of people who perished on September 11th….yet, in response to 9/11, our country joined together, even if temporarily, as we so often do in the immediate aftermath of any tragedy, be it a natural disaster or one inflicted by our own desperate inhumanity….

We joined together, and though there was some dissent, the majority of our country was willing to go to war after 9/11, to go all out after those vicious, merciless terrorists…the perpetrators of that horrific violence that destabilized our security, undermining our sense of self.

Yet today, by contrast, the fight to end gun violence is responded to with vigorous Second Amendment defenses, the elevation of perceived individual rights over the common good and common health of our society, of our nation.

An immature understanding of rugged individualism, a failure to realize that we are in fact our brother’s keeper…a mistaken belief that the violence is someone else’s problem…for someone else to address…that it is remote from us, separate from us….we forget that we are in this thing together, by choice, by consenting to our privilege of citizenship…. Citizenship, that cherished identity that is granted, not forced upon us, but that makes us part of a whole…

In an environment where we are increasingly isolated, increasingly remote from one another, we forget we are part of one community, a common fabric that forms one nation, under God…indivisible.  

We forget that, as Stephen Carter at Yale Law School writes…we forget that morality might require us to sacrifice our selfish interests and desires for the benefit of others.

Let me disabuse anyone who thinks to the contrary, that we are not all somehow connected to or affected by gun violence in our society.  I was not more than six or seven years old when I had my first experience with a gun.  

My brother, sister, a family friend and I were at home playing, watched by my mother, while my father was away on a business trip.  A man tricked his way into our home, immediately flashing a gun at us.  He was menacing … threatening. Fortunately, by virtue of the courage of my brother and the quick thinking of my mother, we survived, unscathed.  Frightened…but not injured.  

Ten years later, an uncle, would not be nearly as lucky, as he was shot and killed in Atlanta.

Of the last six mass shootings in the US, I have loved, or known someone who loved, someone who was shot or perished in four of those shootings.  Let’s put this in perspective.  Phoenix, Aurora, Wisconsin, Newtown.  None of those are places where I live or work or even travel to…and yet somehow, I am connected by no more than two degrees to each of these tragedies. 

Mass violence is a reminder that we are not, as we might mistakenly believe…alone.  We are in fact, deeply connected.  Any of you who were not previously connected to a mass shooting, or any gun violence–by virtue of being with me in this room tonight, and hearing these stories…, you and your networks, are connected now.  

The more we place our own needs, our own desires ahead of our common needs, the more society will be oppressed by selfishness, the more each of us will live in debilitating fear, rather than empowering hope.

For a society that allows violence to perpetuate, is a society devoid of love, devoid of compassion, devoid of justice… Living in a peaceful, loving society with others requires us to set aside our own needs, our own wants, even…our own fears, for the purposes of ensuring our common security.

Those who oppose regulating gun ownership and usage (and who in fact would advocate for an increase in gun ownership)… claim that improved gun controls will not end gun violence, that guns do not kill people (people do)…they ignore intentionally the history of gun regulation in the US, as well as that of the NRA itself, which at different points in its history has actually favored some forms of gun control…and they claim falsely that gun usage cannot be regulated, that our liberal gun laws–the most liberal of any advanced, industrialized nation by the way–cannot be tightened without violating the Second Amendment.

In a society that permits, encourages, even relies upon liberal gun ownership and usage, what use is the rule of law? What use are laws that protect private property? Why have laws for the enforcement of contract, the prosecution of criminals, or the mediation of civil disputes? In a society that would rely upon gun ownership by individuals to maintain the peace….those robust, grand features of the civil society we proclaim to otherwise live in, are perhaps nullified in critical ways. 

The protectors of the status quo are intent to contort the Second Amendment, and our history, to make it servant to their individual desires.  They say we can protect our children from further gun violence, that justice can be served and preserved, by arming our teachers…but if we arm our teachers, or put guards in every school…at what point do we stop arming ourselves?  At what point do we then stop to keep our parks, our museums, our streets and sidewalks safe?  

I doubt the answer to gun violence is the militarization of our public spaces.  That would seem to be a step backwards, away from freedom and democracy, and towards perpetual, potentially disabling fear.

And yet we know that regulating the use of guns can decrease gun related violence.  The States with the tightest gun controls in the US appear to have the lowest incidences of death from gun violence.  University of Maryland researchers found in 1991 that the DC ban on handguns–a restriction repealed by the Supreme Court in 2008–resulted in a 25% drop in homicides and 23% drop in suicides, in each case by handguns.  No similar reductions were found in Virginia or Maryland, each adjacent to DC.

….As freedom loving Americans, we typically don’t believe in curtailing rights….but we seem to have forgotten the other side of the equation, i.e. that with great rights come greater obligations….obligations towards ourselves our children, our communities, one another….

Passing tighter gun laws will be grueling, difficult work….but we can not give up.  We must not back down. We cannot relent.  

But we must understand that passing stricter gun laws is but one step in the effort to eradicate violence in America.  What of the other forms of violence that plague us?  That same University of Maryland report that studied the impact of D.C. gun restrictions on gun related violence, also found that violence perpetuated by other means did not increase, nor did it–importantly, decrease.  So what, of the other forms of violence that plague and enslave us?

What of the violence in our hearts manifested in road rage, impatience and verbal hostilities?   What of the Black Friday rage that every year results in several deaths as individuals desperate to satisfy their consumptive and materialist urges stampede one another in their efforts to be first to get the last of whatever the hot item might be?  What of the glorified, gratuitous violence in film and television–that which goes beyond art, beyond conscious raising provocation?  

What of the verbal violence and intimidation that occurs every day on the Internet?  Everyone and anyone, hiding behind the seemingly pervasive anonymity of comment boards and chat rooms, can say just about any thoughtless, irrational thing they think or are feeling, no matter how bigoted, misogynist, how foul.  We are no longer protected by the norms of civility or even the veil of political correctness, inauthentic though that might have been.   

We are instead repeatedly and regularly exposed, without our consent, to the basest thoughts about gender, race, sexuality and identity… to a steady stream of racial slurs and epithets, demeaning stereotypes that serve only to foster division, to heighten suspicion, to deepen shame. Students are bullied and harassed, sometimes becoming so upset they take their lives by their own hands–often times with handguns.  

Even the nature of protest itself has been marked by a particular kind of violence.  Neither the Tea Party protestors nor Occupy Wall Street protesters wielded guns.  But the language of those protests, which was incompatible with the spirit underlying Dr. King’s protests, evoked a kind of undisciplined, unsettled, selfish, potentially violent anger…malice…

Those protesters too easily fell off Dr. King’s high plane of dignity and discipline and in so doing set up the possibility that creative protest would degenerate into physical violence….today’s protesters did not understand that only with malice toward none, and charity for all…only then shall we be released by the better angels of our nature.

Horrifying atrocities occur in our neighborhoods, our communities.  We react with tears and emotion and to comfort ourselves and each other, in the immediate aftermath, we turn to various means of feeling like we’ve done something to effect change…we make a donation to the anti-gun lobby, we call our member of Congress, we sign an on-line petition.   

We hold our children tighter….we rail at the indignities and injustices of the world, we cast aspersions and shift blame….then….we tell ourselves that we can’t bear to think about it anymore, to talk about it any longer….we convince ourselves that really, there’s nothing more we really can do….it is always somebody’s else’s fault, somebody else’s responsibility….

We are sometimes disempowered temporarily by the violence, forcing ourselves to accept it as a matter of fact, rather than something we can change and so we soon forget… shocked awake, how quickly we go back to sleep, rendering ourselves comfortably numb, medicating ourselves literally and figuratively with various distractions…delving back into our own lives after having spent 24-96 hours peering into the lives of others like such voyeurs… ours is a news cycle culture, fed a steady diet of sound bites and news tweets, our attention spans ever decreasing.  

We have little to no appetite for substantive, civil debate…the exchange of ideas….instead, our hunger, in some cases is met through our various escapes….and… we so quickly forget, as opposed to taking ownership, responsibility as citizens….

In a culture that is sometimes accustomed to finding and pursuing the easy way out, the fast way of doing things…. failing to address root causes, unwilling to fight with all of our might for justice, freedom from fear, accepting something sub-par…we give up so quickly, and in so being and doing, we become unintentionally, part of the problem….

We forget that the aftermath of violence is bitterness.  The aftermath of nonviolence, as Dr. King once said, is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community…The end of violence is redemption. 

We completely misunderstand power, and how power works….the NRA isn’t powerful because of its wealth and influence.  It is powerful because those of us who oppose their position on gun regulation cower in the face of their strength… Every time we back down, every time we refuse to fight, to organize, to protest injustices, degradations, atrocities, we cede power to the other side….

It is from us then, and not their wealth that they draw their truest power… So the only way to weaken those who would stand in the way of justice, is by doing everything we possibly can to prevent the kind of atrocities that are occurring in our culture from ever occurring again, is to never forget… To be vigilant in our pursuit of justice, in our pursuit of humanity, in our pursuit of ensuring our children have every love, every care, every freedom, every opportunity to fulfill their human potential. 

For as Martin Luther King himself said: One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.

So, what are we willing to do or to be… are we willing to change ourselves, to find courage, to find heart to protect the hearts of so many innocents? Where is our true courage as a nation….we cannot bring back lives or give our children back their innocence once it’s lost….but we have to fight for more than anodyne solutions that have no real impact, create no real change….

But we must also remember, that when we grunt at our friends, our parents, our employees, our neighbors, instead of exhibiting patience, kindness, respect, or even love….we are contributing to the breakdown of community.  And how can we not wonder, are we then part of some greater malaise, a malaise that can turn innocent hearts to such blackness and despair that we do the unconscionable?  

What is it about our culture that permits such violence….but that also, has such incredibly high rates of mental illness and incapacity, particularly as compared to the rest of the advanced, industrialized world?… If we have a culture that allows for persistent dehumanization and debasement of ourselves and others, we’re stripping individuals, and communities of their power….what of those feelings of powerlessness and the connection to violence? 

We have to think deeper, more broadly, more globally, we have to remember how this country was built, who we are… that it was through endurance and sacrifice and constant commitment, and a refusal to give up…even in our darkest hours, confronting our greatest challenges, we have always pressed on, we have always progressed.

Those of us who care about true justice, about freeing ourselves, our children, our communities from the prospect of further violence, have a duty as citizens and to one another, to the precious victims of Newtown and every other mass shooting, to do everything we can to ensure the passage of laws that will stop gun violence. The status quo, which threatens our confidence and undermines our potential as a nation, must not, and cannot persist. 

It is time for a different way.  We do not have time to wallow in a valley of despair.  It is time to celebrate humanity, rather than squashing it, to quell the violence in our hearts and our communications, and replace it with love…It is time we love our neighbors every day, not just when we are most acutely afraid or startled by horrific events; We must remember, the time is always right to do what is right… It is time…for a different way.

I have faith–and so should everyone here. The US has regularly faced enormous, very difficult, sometimes colossally embarrassing challenges…but over the whole of its history, the US has managed to progress continually, consider what we, a nation born in the violence of the American Revolution, have overcome–institutionalized slavery, the Civil War, legalized segregation and the brutal racist legacy of Jim Crow…we have learned from our mistakes (before repeating them) and have eventually addressed our challenges, solving seemingly insurmountable problems in a manner that expands justice, rights and opportunity.  

It is obviously an iterative process, where steps forward are answered with steps backward, sometimes giant steps backward…. Many things are or seem worse today than they’ve ever been, progress appears harder to achieve…as discussed throughout these remarks, we seem prone to a very special kind of regression on social issues especially….but I believe all of that can, and will be overcome in a manner that benefits more citizens, not a small select group.    

Those of us who are racial minorities should remember, we are not today oppressed people, most of us are not demeaned or marginalized by the system–personally, I’ve had help at every turn, support in every way, have benefitted from the expansion of justice and enforcement of my rights under the law (and I’m certainly not the only black person here for whom this has been the case)…. the many failings I’ve experienced on my path to whatever success I’ve achieved, are by and large my own failings, and not attributable to systemic injustices–so I cannot and will not blame my shortcomings on racial oppression–I can choose only to learn from them and to move forward….  

We should be more interested in solving problems than assuming nothing can change, or moping about how hard things are, how unfair it is that blacks and other racial minorities are sometimes treated differently.  We should be more interested in taking a deep breath and advocating for possibility.  

Dwelling on what’s wrong, without advocating for change or developing and implementing solutions, doesn’t fix anything.  Dwelling on the negative undermines the efforts of those who have fought for various freedoms and achieved them.  Dwelling on what’s wrong and imperfect–gives an inappropriate excuse for not fighting for change….dwelling leads to despair which subjugates hope, that otherwise ultimate grease of effort and possibility.

And anyway, I’d rather be inspired by those of all races fighting for change, who are offended by continued racism where it occurs (sometimes these folks are more offended than I am)…than to obsess over cruelties and deprivations, believing falsely that their existence renders me incapable of achieving my potential, my capacity, of celebrating my humanity….. 

I see no point in relishing in my own victimization….I see zero point in complaining about all these injustices without committing myself to, and actually fighting for change. As my grandfather used to say, he (or she) who plays the role of victim, will always be a victim, will be victimized further by virtue of their victimhood….all victims therefor have a moral obligation to overcome their victimization (and to avoid victimizing others in the process).  

We should not think less of ourselves or our country because of the violence, because of bigotry, because of our social challenges…, because there are some who are too ignorant to realize the ultimate futility of their hatred, or that there are some who fail to recognize that their hatred ultimately does more to harm them, that it does to harm targets of their vitriol.

We do not free ourselves from the scourge of violence, or racism or hatred by dwelling upon it irresponsibly… For to allow such control over our thoughts, our minds, is to subject ourselves to a form of slavery that is perhaps different from institutional slavery, but ultimately just as dangerous (if not moreso)…..

Still, it is imperative that among the social challenges we commit ourselves to, that we continue to discuss race, racism and its effect on our policy, our politics, individuals and our nation.  We must not table this discussion, treating race as something taboo, marginalizing it, assuming that it is something only racial groups themselves care about.  

There are a lot of things that happen on a daily basis that stink for non-white people living in the United States, (yes, there are things that stink for white people too)… There are things we experience that our white friends and colleagues perhaps do not to experience–but there are strengths we possess by virtue of having to overcome that which others haven’t faced as well, there is confidence that is gained by virtue of having faced down and conquered that mighty wall of oppression, in refusing to succumb to planned deprivations and failed subjugation…., in perhaps having in some circumstances had to work harder….just to achieve our dreams.  

We can choose to internalize that hatred, to think worse of ourselves and to thereby debilitate our prospects–or we can externalize it, realizing it has nothing to do with us, and trust in our ability to overcome…. What good can come from running around complaining about how hard our lives are?  There’s too much work to be done!

It should be possible to acknowledge that racism exists in this country, to acknowledge our abundant imperfections, and to appreciate at the same time that there is something very special about this country’s ability to achieve progress, to inspire hope, to grow, to evolve, to change…. Disappointment in our transgressions and offenses, does not mean we cannot or should not be proud of, or love our country.  

We should be heartened that the proportion of people in the US who genuinely hold racist attitudes is shrinking (and we should be glad that most pernicious racists are not as often in positions of power, where they can use their authority to oppress and degrade minorities).  

To wit–racism means less and less as time progresses and as former would be “victims” of racism continue to ascend to positions of power and authority, provided of course that those individuals do not abuse their power and authority by, themselves, harboring intolerant views. 

We must stop pretending that discussing race doesn’t matter, we must allow ourselves to get temporarily uncomfortable, to learn, to expand our hearts and minds.   We must endeavor to learn more about and understand each other’s experiences, backgrounds, cultures, histories… Because the more we understand….the more we see how much we have in common, the more compassion we might have for one another, the more trust among different people might grow, the better and more stronger our connections and relationships will be….

The more we share our vulnerabilities, the more likely we are to remove that sense of shame that so many feel because they are different, that deep, festering, debilitating wound of “otherness” that for some can become a debilitating habit of mind…..

The more we learn, the better our relationships will be… And the more we improve on each of these things…the more likely we will be able to solve the real problems confronting us in business and in policy, particularly our violent culture…and hopefully the healthier and stronger our nation will be.

I love living in a country that is responsive over the arc of history to efforts to expand justice, where I can freely speak my mind about injustices, where I can advocate for change, and expect, over time and with blood, sweat and tears to see positive results flow from my efforts…. in fact it may be that because of that love, I am inspired to help the US be its very best, to achieve its potential as a nation, to overcome its faults.  It is because of that love, and my faith in this country, that I know we can do much better than we have been doing, that we can overcome our proclivity towards violence and address lingering racism and social problems.    

But this love, this faith–is not an apology.  It is just love–plain and simple.

There is much that is in a name, and we in the United States, would be wise to remember that, lest we tragically forget who we are.  We cannot forget that we are the United States of America, joined together by common purpose, common cause…our fates inextricably linked, our destinies tied.  Inherent in our name is the notion that we share a common destiny, which requires the elevation of the common good….that it is the will of the people, we the people which matters most….Our common destiny, our common purpose requires us therefor to be willing to die to self, to lay down our lives for our friends, to preserve the whole.

Dr. King was just 39 years old when he was killed by a bullet, shot from a Remington Model 760 pump action rifle….  Then the same age I am now, he died a violent death in the pursuit of justice, not just for blacks, but for people of all colors…, he died a violent death fighting for our common humanity, for the expression of human dignity… 

He seemed to understand, that so long as there was any individual in our country denied their dignity, that our country would not ever achieve its potential.  His, was the ultimate sacrifice for us.  So I ask you, what are we willing to do now? How are we willing to honor his sacrifice, not just today, but every day?

….We look forward with great hope to rebuilding the fabric of our nation.  But in our jubilation, we cannot forget our obligations.  We cannot forget that change actually, requires the effort of much more than a small group of committed citizens.  It requires the continued, persistent effort of every single one of us.  

To ensure the vitality of our nation, it’s continued progress, to more fundamentally remember who we are and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and all those who died fighting for us, we must remember….we all have a role to play.