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In Commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Clarence B. Jones / Scholar in Residence,  Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University / January 14, 2011

Clarence B. Jones

Clarence B. Jones

This weekend our nation will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the national holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have been 82 years of age had he lived beyond April 4th, 1968, the date of his assassination in Memphis, TN.

I believe the principal 21st-century challenge to our country from the legacy of Dr. King is how we effectively renew, dedicate and recommit ourselves to the pursuit of nonviolent conflict resolution and increased equal access by all Americans to economic opportunity.

“Violence lies like molten lava beneath the surface of our society waiting to erupt.”

Domestic violence continues, abated by the sale, purchase and use of guns:

1. Suicide is still the leading cause of firearm death in the U.S., representing 55.6 percent of total 2007 gun deaths nationwide. In 2007, the U.S. firearm suicide total was 17,352, an increase from 2006 total of 16,883 gun suicides. Total gun suicides in Illinois for 2007 were 423, an increase of 13.7 percent from the 2006 number 372. More than half of suicides in the U.S. are committed with firearms. (Numbers obtained from CDC National Center for Health Statistics mortality report online, 2010; and the American Association of Suicidology.)

2. While handguns account for only one-third of all firearms owned in the United States, they account for more than two-thirds of all firearm-related deaths each year. A gun in the home is four times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting, seven times more likely to be used to commit a criminal assault or homicide, and 11 times more likely to be used to attempt or commit suicide than to be used in self-defense. (A Kellerman, et al. Journal of Trauma, August 1998; Kellerman AL, Lee RK, Mercy JA, et al. “The Epidemiological Basis for the Prevention of Firearm Injuries.” Annu.Rev Public Health. 1991; 12:17-40.)

3. A gun in the home increases the risk of homicide of a household member by three times and the risk of suicide by five times compared to homes where no gun is present. (Kellerman AL, Rivara FP, Somes G, et al. “Suicide in the Home in Relation to Gun Ownership.” NEJM. 1992; 327(7):467-472)

4. Despite popular belief, young children possess the physical strength to fire a gun: 25 percent of three-to-four-year-olds, 70 percent of five-to-six-year-olds, and 90 percent of seven-to-eight-year-olds can fire most handguns. (Naureckas, SM, Christoffel, KK, et al. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 1995.)

5. 48 percent of gun-owning households with children do NOT regularly make sure that guns are equipped with child safety locks or other trigger locks. (Peter Hart Research Associates poll, 1999.)

6. 59 percent of students in grades six through 12 know where to get a gun if they want one, and two thirds of these students say they can acquire a firearm within 24 hours.

The recent episode of gun violence in Tucson, Arizona, in the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is only the latest more public reminder of the extent to which we, as a nation, must recommit ourselves to nonviolent conflict resolution.

In international affairs, with all due respect to President Obama’s enunciation of his “just war” doctrine during his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, Dr. King was unalterably opposed to the use of preempted violence as an instrument of American foreign policy, as for example, in Afghanistan.

In his first major public policy opposition to the Vietnam War, at a speech at Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967, captioned “Time To Break Silence,” Dr. King said “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

Dr. King’s legacy additionally reminds us, in his words, that “the fierce urgency of now” requires us to address one or more, or all, of the following issues:

The high incidence of HIV/AIDS and out-of-wedlock births in the African-American community:

1. At the end of 2007, blacks accounted for almost half (46 percent) of people living with a diagnosis of HIV infection in the 37 states and five US dependent areas with long-term, confidential, name-based HIV reporting.

2. From 2005-2008, the rate of HIV diagnoses among blacks increased from 68/100,000 persons to 74/100,000. This increase reflects the largest increase in rates of HIV diagnoses by race or ethnicity.

3. By the end of 2007, an estimated 233,624 blacks with a diagnosis of AIDS had died in the US and five dependent areas. In 2006, HIV was the ninth leading cause of death for all blacks and the third leading cause of death for both black men and black women aged 35-44.

The estimated 70 percent of out-of-wedlock births in the African-American community

The rising disparity between rich and poor, the income and wealth gap at an all time high:

The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90 percent. The top 1 percent of households has 38.3 percent of all privately held stock, 60.6 percent of financial securities, and 62.4 percent of business equity. The top 10 percent have 80 percent to 90 percent of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and more than 75 percent of non-home real estate. (Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10 percent of the people own the United States of America.)

Deterioration of the pursuit of educational excellence:

The failure of prominent religious leaders to exercise more public and active moral leadership on many of our most urgent domestic issues;

The failure of a renewed coalition between the African-American and the Jewish community to more actively encourages and supports our government’s efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestinian dispute;

The hypocrisy within and polarization of the African American church community on the issue equal rights for our gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters;

The increasing “balkanization” of the political process: “Tea Party,” progressives, right, left and;

The decline of “redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation” as a viable conflict resolution alternative to such “balkanization.”

“One of our greatest challenges is overcoming bitterness and divisiveness. We all struggle with the wrongs others have done to us as well as those we have done to others, and we recoil at the vast extent of injury humankind seems determined to inflict on itself. How to keep hope alive? Without a constructive answer to toxic anger, addictive cycles of revenge, and immobilizing guilt, we seem doomed to despair about chances for renewal. One answer to this despair lies in forgiveness.”

According to Charles L. Griswold:

Forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other. Whether forgiveness is or is not possible will depend on the circumstances and reasons at play; not just anything is going to count as forgiveness. Establishing the minimal threshold for an exchange to count as “forgiveness” is a matter of some debate, but it must include the giving up of revenge by the victim, and an assumption of responsibility by the offender. (Charles L. Griswold is Borden Parker Bowne Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. His books include Forgiveness: a Philosophical Exploration (2007).

Dr. King would have applauded the eloquent speech of President Barack Obama at the Memorial Convocation in Tucson, Arizona, following the killing and wounding of several members of that community.

Martin Luther King. Jr.’s personal challenge to the current generation of political leaders would be to remind them that:

I don’t determine what is right or wrong by roaming around taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately, a genuine leader is not a subject for consensus, but he is a molder of consensus. On some positions cowardice ask the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ There comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither expedient, that’s neither safe, that’s neither politic or that is neither popular, but he must take that stand because it is right, and that is where I find myself today.

So, the question confronting us on this 25th commemoration of our nation’s holiday honoring Dr. King: Are we ready, willing and able to accept the challenge presented by the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr as we commence the second decade of the 21st century?

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