What Would Dr. King Do?


On Monday, our nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  President Obama will also be inaugurated after presenting his plan to reduce gun violence, just yesterday. This is shaping up as a year when we must hold many things in our hearts…all at the same time.

What would Dr. King be preaching today?

He would certainly be supporting the first African American President in his efforts to control gun violence. Even when he was alive he preached: “By our willingness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim…we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred become popular pastimes.” King’s death was by the gun.

Dr. King is rightly honored as one of the great proponents of non-violence. But he needed help and support to reject violence.

Bayard Rustin, who was with Dr. King from the beginning, is not well remembered although he was the lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. When Rustin arrived in Montgomery, Alabama  in 1956 to help with the nascent bus boycott, he found guns inside Dr. King’s home and armed guards posted at the doors. It was Rustin who persuaded King and the other boycott leaders to adopt complete Gandhian non-violence.

But Rustin, who was openly gay, took no public role in Montgomery. In fact, he was secreted out of Montgomery, hidden in the trunk of a car, because it was feared that having an openly-gay man visible in leadership would discredit the Civil Rights Movement. King was not ready to broaden his vision.

But, had he lived, I’m certain that his position would have “evolved.” He demonstrated the ability and the courage to see how all our oppressions are linked. His vision expanded when he “came out” against the Viet Nam war. He recognized that people of color made up a disproportionate number of those who were fighting and dying for a nation that did not grant them true equality. His enlarging vision called him to Memphis, where he was killed. He was there to support garbage workers—black and white. He recognized that as people of color began moving out of apartheid, broad issues of economic fairness had to be addressed.

Today, Dr. King would be urging support for sensible gun control. He would, I think, be pointing out that, though the face of gun violence in America is overwhelmingly white (just like the face of poverty), African American men are six times as likely to die from gun violence as whites.

Dr. King would be preaching non-violence.

Last week almost 600 congregants signed my letter to Vice-President Biden urging a broad and effective approach to reducing gun violence. We now have the President’s proposal. I personally wish he had gone further, opening the conversation with more systematic approaches like universal licensing and gun registration requirements. But I will be offering whole-hearted support for his proposals. The urgency is too great to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Contact information for our state and national elected leaders will be available at the Peace Action table in Fuller Hall this Sunday. We need to keep up the volume of support. The financial contributions and the access of those who oppose even these measures need to be offset with our commitment and our constancy.

I will be honoring Dr. King on Sunday and remembering him throughout these days. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he preached. I believe this to be true. And I also believe the path to peace and justice cannot be followed with gun in hand.