Friday, June 24, 2016

Can Nonviolence Stop the Killing? By Sandy Semerad

         I’ve been thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King lately, and wondering what the slain civil rights leader and champion of nonviolence would say about the deadly mass shootings in our country.

I started thinking about King as I listened to the song, People Get Ready. I’d heard the song before, but I’d never paid attention to the words until Larry, my piano-playing husband, wanted me to sing it. I had forgotten Curtis Mayfield had written the song. According to Mayfield, the lyric and tune germinated as he waited at a Chicago train station for King to arrive.

Although he wrote other gospel songs, this particular one became an enormous hit. It has been recorded by Rod Stewart, the Neville Brothers, and others, including Mayfield himself. Mayfield would have been 74, June 3, had he lived:
         “People get ready                                    
          There’s a train a-coming
          You don’t need no baggage
          You just get on board
          All you need is faith
          To hear the diesels humming
          Don’t need no ticket
          You just thank the Lord…”

King eventually used this song and others, like Keep on Pushing, also written by Mayfield, to inspire marchers as they faced violence and jail time.

I once had the honor of meeting Dr. King. He was pacing back and forth in the Atlanta Airport, as if lost in thought, unaware of his surroundings.

I watched him for a while before I gathered the courage to walk over and say, “Hi Dr. King.”

He froze. I thought I saw alarm in his eyes.

I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. “I just wanted to meet you,” I said.

He kindly took my hand.

Being star struck, I don’t recall what he said in response. I couldn’t quite believe I’d actually met him.

Tragically, a few years later he was assassinated. As I watched his funeral on television, daughter Rene—only a few weeks old then--cried most of that day, as if she had absorbed my grief.

No question those were turbulent times: The Vietnam War, President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in ‘63, followed by King’s in ’68. Then two months after King died, JFK’s brother Senator Robert Kennedy was murdered. But even in that crazy decade, we never heard of mass shootings, outside of war.

Dr. King would have been appalled by these senseless killings, I know. He’d always espoused peace.

Four years before his death, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.  He fought for racial equality, using nonviolent resistance as he sacrificed his life to bring about peace and justice for all.

His I have a Dream speech called for us to become better, braver, unbiased and more dignified. (I alluded to his great speech in my novel A Message in the Roses, which is set in Atlanta). I can close my eyes and still see him on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the March on Washington.

If he were alive today, I’m confident he’d continue to march and use his powerful oratory to speak out for peaceful perseverance. 

As Dr. King, I abhor violence. It’s incomprehensible to me that three of the deadliest shootings in the United States have occurred in the last ten years: Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, FL. (June 12, 2016)—49 people killed, 50 wounded; Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA (April 16, 2007) 32 people killed, 17 injured; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. (Dec. 14, 2012) 26 people killed, mostly children. The shooter also killed his mother.

The weapons used in these shootings were obtained legally, according to a CNN report. I’ve also read there were two other similarities. The shooters had been prescribed antidepressants--often large dosages--and they used weapons of war (assault weapons).

However, the U.S. Senate recently voted down two pieces of gun violence prevention legislation--June 20, 2016). This legislation failed in large part due to the powerful National Rifle Association’s lobbying efforts, according to the Washington Post.

       In the spirit of Dr. King, Georgia Congressman John Lewis led a sit-it in the U.S. House. Lewis, and other democrats, wanted the House to allow a vote on "common sense" gun control legislation, but House leaders refused. Lewis, a civil rights icon, who risked his life and marched with King, said he will not give up the fight until tougher gun laws are passed. 

       Most Americans support tougher gun laws, according to public opinion polls. Yet, the majority of our lawmakers refuse to act. 

       This baffles me. Too many beautiful lives have been lost and too many hearts have been broken.

I’m thinking Dr. King would say we can find a solution if we work together, but we must choose the public good over special interests. He’d say violence is never the answer, as he stated so eloquently in his I Have a Dream speech:

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Amen, Dr. King. Amen.

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