On MLK Day

In the midst of a politically-charged debate about the recent tragedy in Arizona, President Barack Obama’s well-received speech sent an important message to Americans—and others abroad.

“We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence,” he said last week, speaking at a memorial to the six who were killed while attending a Congress on the Corner event with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz).

“We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future,” he said. “But what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other.”

His words were particularly poignant given the heated nature of American rhetoric on any number of issues before the terrible tragedy.

His words were even more poignant given the proximity of both the tragedy and his speech to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Obama went on not to discourage heated political debate but to speak to the tone it should take.

“As we discuss these issues, let us each do so with a good dose of humility,” he said. “Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”

While his mention of a dream brings to mind a great dream that King had, Obama’s words echo another part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

King took to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and before he began his famous “I have a dream” refrain, he spoke about something more.

“In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds,” King said. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

It’s a powerful reminder that, while discussion of ideas—including dissenting ones—are critical to our democracy, that these discussions need not be laced with bitterness of hatred.

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” King said. “We must not allow our creative protest to denigrate into physical violence.”

King’s words are as true today as it was nearly 50 years ago.

Obama offered the following words of wisdom as the country moves forward: “…At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

I couldn’t help but think that King said nearly the same thing years ago, just as eloquently, but with fewer words: “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Today, in America, that means that as we pause to mourn the six who died that stand together with those who were injured, we cannot let the actions of one individual mar the legacy of our democracy. We must move forward and remember what First Lady Michelle Obama wrote in an open letter to parents this week: “We might not always agree with those who represent us, anyone who enters public life does so because they love their country and want to serve it.”

Obama’s speech, while well-written, heartfelt and absolutely necessary to begin a lengthy healing process, is but a mere echo of King’s ideals—which, more than ever this year, we as Americans ought to reflect upon.

Published this week in the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press and Villager newspapers.

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