In Memoriam – Dr. Martin Luther King

On April 30, 1967, I found myself at a big anti-war demonstration in New York’s Central Park. As the event wound down a bunch of us left the park, walked over to Broadway, then all the way uptown to a neighborhood known as Morningside Heights where we then squeezed ourselves into a monumental edifice known then and now as Riverside Church. We were there to listen to a speech delivered by Martin Luther King which as he began his address we realized that he was going to say something remarkable, vibrant and new.

king This speech marked a momentous turning-point in the growing public resistance to the Viet Nam War. The fighting in Southeast Asia had already produced nearly 20,000 casualties but the worst still lay ahead, particularly in 1968 after Tet; a majority of the public and certainly the media still supported the idea that a gradual troop withdrawal might succeed; Gene McCarthy’s anti-war Presidential campaign was six months’ away; Lyndon Johnson had not yet announced that he wouldn’t seek another term.

When King said he was going to break publicly with Johnson and the Democratic Party over Viet Nam, many people, including other civil rights leaders, denounced his decision as an unfortunate and untimely challenge against the ally whose ability to push civil rights legislation through Congress had resulted in dramatic legal changes to the status of African-Americans and their relationship to whites. Nevertheless, King felt he had no choice but to move from the politics of racial equality to the politics of peace, because what made racial inequality so objectionable was the degree to which legal barriers to African-American racial equality resulted in even greater barriers against economic equality as well. As he said in his remarks, “it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor.”

I sometimes wonder what might have happened had King not been gunned down a year later and instead been able to unite the civil rights and anti-war movements into a successful political effort for serious social and economic change. But there’s no value in thinking about what might have been; what we need to do is think about what is, and how Dr. King’s words can help us understand what we now need to do. And here is what King said which brings his views from fifty years ago into focus today: “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”

In the current climate it’s simple and easy to point an accusatory finger at our government; after all we have a President who promotes and endorses violence every chance he gets. And a day doesn’t go by without him bragging about how he’s going to increase military spending while gutting every social program he can.

But when Barack Obama took office in 2009 we had troops stationed in more than 1,000 locations outside the United States. When he left office in 2016 that number hadn’t changed. In his first year alone he approved more drone strikes than his predecessor allowed in his entire eight years. Meanwhile, every time there was a mass shooting he went on television and cried and cried and cried.

My public health friends who do research on gun violence never forget to remind us that the reason we suffer more than 120,000 gun injuries each year is because we own so many guns. But if you think there’s no connection between the existence of 300 million privately-owned firearms and what we lavish on our military, think again. In 2015 the world spent $1.6 trillion on military goods and services, of which we spent nearly 40% of that figure all by ourselves.

Want to reduce gun violence? Take seriously what Dr. King preached in 1967 and ask where the real cause of this violence lies.

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Comment On The Always Saddening Anniversary Of The Death Of Dr. King.

Is there the slightest possibility that two political scientists at the University of Illinois just happen to have discovered a possible link between racist attitudes and pro-gun sentiments at the same time that the most successful Republican presidential campaign rests on racial slurs directed at immigrants and a fervent love of the 2nd Amendment?  There has been a vaguely disguised racist appeal to much of the pro-gun rhetoric that links the value of gun ownership to personal protection against crime, some of it not so vague, but now that the Trumpster has made racism a genuinely acceptable rhetorical form during his campaign stops, it figures that some folks on the ‘other side’ of the gun debate would step up the rhetoric as well.  The result is a study which purports to prove that “racial prejudice colors all aspects of the debate regarding gun policy,” and that whites are susceptible to “the emotional and persuasive power of gun rights messaging which invokes the white, gun-carrying every-person who defends home and Democracy against (nonwhite) bad guys.”

The authors of this study define racist attitudes as the “politics of resentment,” which basically means a reaction by whites to what they perceived as the government conferring special privileges on blacks.  In particular, these so-called racially-based privileges included integrating schools and public facilities, preferential treatment in hiring, expanded welfare, in other words, the panoply of government programs which accompanied the elimination of legal Jim Crow in the decades following World War II. In that respect, the notion of gun ‘rights’ as an expression of hostility to government programs followed from taxpayer ‘rights’ that opposed welfare, homeowner ‘rights’ that opposed equal housing, and victims ‘rights’ that came down against more liberal treatment of criminal offenders; i.e., criminals who just happened to be blacks.

At this point the narrative of the article begins to wobble a bit, primarily because the authors veer off into a discussion of how the NRA changed from supporting gun-control laws in the 60s to taking a much more aggressive anti-government tone after the 1977 Harlon Carter putsch.  And the idea that the NRA was a believer in gun control until the Republicans began to develop a Southern base has remained part-and-parcel of virtually every discussion about guns, politics and race. And of course we all know, or at least we think we know that since liberals tend not to like guns, by definition the growth of an active, pro-gun movement led by the NRA and a shift towards the right by the GOP have gone hand-in-hand.

If you take a look at the votes that were cast in Congress for GCA68, the first significant gun-control legislation, the ‘nay’ votes in both the House and the Senate were cast overwhelmingly by the same members of Congress who voted against the civil rights bill in 1964 and the voting rights bill in 1965.  That the NRA was not yet poised to take advantage of the South’s resistance to federal “encroachments” did not in any way alter the fact that the South as a region had always been a gun-rich zone.  What drove pro-gun sentiment in the South was not racism per se, but the extent to which gun-control laws were seen as being forced on the South by the same liberal government that was using law to wipe away the vestiges of Jim Crow.

Gun ownership as an affirmation of racialist attitudes is certainly at play with the same extreme, political ideas that pop out of the mouths of Cliven Bundy and other militia fools and jerks. But I think it’s a little too simplistic and, in fact, somewhat quaint to assume that the emotions driving the gun debate from the pro-gun side largely stem from thoughts and angers about race. The real question we need to ask on this, the 48th anniversary of the shooting death of Dr. King, is what role does violence play in our everyday emotions and affairs?  After all, no violence, no need for guns.

 

 

Did Martin Luther King, Jr., Preach Against Gun Violence? In A Very Big Way.

Exactly one year before he was shot to death, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke out publicly against the Viet Nam War.  He did this in disagreement with many of his civil rights contemporaries, who were afraid he would fracture what was becoming a tenuous alliance with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, notwithstanding the fact that Viet Nam was a Democratic war.

king              King’s opposition to the war was entirely consistent with his lifelong adherence to non-violence; simply put, he believed that using violence as a response to the social or economic ills that plagued mankind only produced more violence and could never be justified as the necessary means to achieve a desirable end.  I was at New York’s Riverside Church when King made his first anti-Viet Nam speech, and I recall how the emotions in that hall jumped as King accused his own country of using the same violence to quell the revolution in Southeast Asia as had been used to deny civil rights to African-Americans at home.

How much has changed in the nearly 50 years since Dr. King delivered that speech? I’d like to think that when it comes to the use of violence in response to social and economic problems, perhaps we have moved ahead.  But I’m not sure this is the case, and I’m certainly not about to say that we have learned how to separate the use of violence from the use of guns.

A day doesn’t go by without some pro-gun mouthpiece reminding us that guns protect us from crime.  And basically what they are all saying is that violence can and should be used against violence, except they don’t call it gun violence, they call it self-protection, freedom, and 2nd-Amendment rights. But make no mistake about it, when the NRA promotes CCW or Stand Your Ground laws, they are not only saying that violence is and should be a response to violence, they are asking for legal immunity for anyone taking that path. Now that most states have legalized unconditional CCW when it did not exist as a doctrine during Dr. King’s lifetime, shouldn’t we say that violence has become more, rather than less of an accepted social norm since his death?

Not only is violence sanctioned in the American legal fabric, but when efforts are made to curb violence through lawful means, the gun lobby and its sycophants in and out of the media resist such efforts on a continuous and usually successful basis.  Only 28 states have CAP laws which, by definition, would curb the unintended violence caused by accidental shootings, often committed by young children.  And if this isn’t bad enough, we have the disgraceful attempt by the NRA and several of its loony medical partners to demonize physicians for asking patients about access to guns, as if gun violence, as opposed to other forms of violence, lie outside the accepted purview of medical care.

We could blame this socially-acceptable diffusion of violence on the rhetorical excesses of the NRA, but Dr. King would be the first to object to such a facile explanation. Because in his 1967 speech, King was clear that we would not be able to reduce or eliminate violence at home if we did not find ways to reduce our use of organized, state-sanctioned violence abroad. And while I would like to say that we have learned this lesson from the debacle of Viet Nam, in fact it appears that each succeeding generation needs to re-learn this lesson again.  The $600 billion that we spent on the Pentagon in 2015 represents nearly 40% of military expenditures worldwide, and American military personnel are based in more than 100 countries that do not fly our flag.

Let’s not forget on Dr. King’s Day: the same President who signed the historic Voting Rights Act in 1965 signed the Gun Control Act in 1968.  In between those two dates, he sent half a million young men to Viet Nam.