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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If You Think That Wear Orange Day Won’t Making A Difference, Think Again.

Sometime early in 1965, I remember there was snow on the ground, a bunch of us left our college campus, went down to Times Square and demonstrated against American troops in Viet Nam.  At the time there were only 20,000 or so fighting men over there and people who walked past us nodded politely, glanced at and then threw away our little leaflets. After an hour or so we all went home.

We never could have imagined that five years later there would be 400,000 American GIs in Southeast Asia, but we also couldn’t imagine that there were demonstrations daily in every American city, and that eventually the anti-war stance of a majority of Americans would help bring about an end to the war.

I was thinking about my experience as a college student during the Viet Nam War last week on Wear Orange Day.  Because when it started in Chicago as a way to commemorate the life (and terrible, terrible death) of Hadiya Pendleton, I don’t think that anyone believed or even imagined that in two short years this event would swell into an international occasion embracing the activities and energies of millions of average, ordinary folks like you and me.  And when I say millions, I’m not talking about single-digit millions; I’m talking about hundreds of millions – that’s right – hundreds of millions who were aware that wearing orange on June 2nd meant participating in an activity that allowed everyone to spend some time thinking about the violence caused by guns.

orange2           I didn’t notice, incidentally, that the event was embraced or even mentioned by the NRA.  Usually when some organization, politician or celebrity says anything remotely reasonable about gun violence, Gun Nut Nation’s noise machine swings into action, inundating the faithful with emails, videos, and most of all, demands for cash.  Last week it was Hillary, this week it was Katie, there are plenty of targets around.  And the reason that the number of targets keeps increasing is the same reason why participation in the Wear Orange campaign is growing by leaps and bounds, namely, the silly and stupid arguments that are trotted out again and again to explain away the senseless deaths of more than 30,000 human beings every year from gun violence simply don’t work.

In 2015 there were 55,000 people who posted #WearOrange support on social media; this year more than 200,000 posts came up; last year the hashtag registered 220 million impressions across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – try seven times that number this year; in 2015 they held a Party for Peace in Chicago, last week more than 200 events took place countryside; the Empire State Building was lit orange, so were more than 125 other landmarks from sea to shining sea.  Want a list of the hundreds of companies, major personalities, political leaders and professional sports teams that wore orange?  It’s right here.

I have been following the argument over gun violence for more than thirty years, in fact it’s going on forty because I first started paying attention to the issue of guns and gun violence prevention in the run-up to GCA68. And what is so important and different about June 2nd from every previous activity designed to increase awareness about gun violence is that this time, for the first time, it didn’t grow out of an immediate response to a horrific shooting or other crazy, gun violence event.

Which means that the emotions and energy displayed on June 2nd aren’t just going to fade away.  Because #WearOrange has now taken on a life of its own; it exists because people understand and support the idea that guns are deadly and gun violence needs to fade away.  Tomorrow I’ll go walking and spot someone who just happens to be wearing orange. I’ll flash a quick grin of recognition and I’ll probably get a quick grin back.  And if this happens to me it will happen to others and it will happen more and more.

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.