Commentary: Martin Luther King's message of nonviolence resonates

The Kansas City StarJanuary 21, 2013 

SANCHEZ MARY KC

Mary Sanchez is a columnist with the Kansas City Star.

MBR — Kansas City Star/MCT

There’s never a shortage of oversimplifications and stretched analogies this time of year, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

A public relations stunt is even trying to “honor” King with Saturday’s Gun Appreciation Day. They want people to rally at gun shops and shooting ranges.

That’s hardly the way to regard a man assassinated by gunfire. Now the temptation will be to draw conclusions about how King would view gun violence and the White House efforts to control it.

First, understand that King initially accepted nonviolence only as a practical matter. Later it became a moral conviction.

Author and theologian James H. Cone explains this in the book “Martin & Malcolm & America.” King didn’t begin such historic actions as the Montgomery bus boycott with a philosophy of nonviolence, nor did he have it when his home was firebombed on Jan. 30, 1956. King resorted to armed guards.

But King faced the reality that lives would be lost if he appeared to advocate for violence. King couldn’t call for black people to meet resistance to social change with force or weapons. Numbers, the police presence then, meant that would only result in slaughter.

He also began to see that violence begets violence. Today that truth is seen in retaliatory killings, drive-by shootings and the sort of gunslinging that has recently caused the accidental shooting deaths of little children in the metro area.

The power of nonviolence, King argued, is how it disarmed people. In King’s view, it had power over people who wanted to maintain a segregated society, one that treated racial minorities and the poor as lesser beings.

To grasp where King was coming from, a person needs to move beyond the mentality of an eye for an eye, a slap for a slap, a bullet for a bullet.

The bully, the person quick to aggression, sees the nonviolent person as the weaker, the one lacking courage.

But that’s rarely the case.

It’s the one who reaches first for the weapon who more often lacks self-control, and often broader insights.

It’s important not to assume what a man dead nearly 45 years would say about the specifics of current social issues.

But it’s merely accurate to note that King believed in the power of nonviolence to transform people and societies.

King believed nonviolence’s greatest power was in what it does “to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls on resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had.”

Nonviolence, King argued, “helps you to work for something that is morally right.”

It’s an approach that worked for civil rights. And it offers a viable framework for current struggles to balance the rights to self-defense, mental health and living in a peaceful society.

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