Lawmakers reflect on Martin Luther King Jr., 'times of challenge'

Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.)

These are sober days in America, and yet fortuitously, they coincide with our national celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In times like these, I often turn to Dr. King’s writings. They remind me that we have overcome some rather difficult events in our nation’s history. In the days following the horrific shootings in Arizona, I have reread a few of some of Dr. King’s writings and reflected upon some of my own experiences to find a deeper understanding and context within which to view these tragic events.

The context in which one views this challenging episode depends largely on one’s life experiences. These are mine — I am 70 years old, born in segregated Sumter, South Carolina. I attended all-black schools and was a civil rights activist as a student on the campus of South Carolina State College. I know what it is to attempt to exercise my First Amendment rights and come face to face with someone I knew wanted to harm me physically.

I have been asked often in recent days if the current public discourse is the worst I have ever seen. In my experience, the answer is no. For those of us who lived through the 1960s, we have poignant memories of the dark days when President Kennedy, Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated. We lived through bombings, lynchings, and mobs spewing such venomous hate that we all wondered how we would overcome. But we did. We overcame with Dr. King’s admonition that our protests must remain nonviolent. In his words, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” And even more importantly, in my opinion, you refuse to allow his hate to diminish you.

In recent years, we have heard hateful speech become commonplace in our public discourse. The tone of our political rhetoric has become angry and personal. It has come from people of all walks of life — on the left, on the right, and over the airwaves — from those who know that shock and slander sells. Everybody seems to be asking, how can we overcome these difficult days? Dr. King would answer eloquently that, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

These are times of challenge and controversy. Dr. King would have us “use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” To do right is to work together to create a “more perfect union.” That means finding common ground, being willing to compromise, to consider differing opinions. I have always said that if the difference between me and my opponent is five steps, I don’t mind taking three of them. This country’s beloved Constitution was adopted only after reaching the Great Compromise.

There is an old folk song adopted as an anthem of the civil rights movement that teaches us to keep our “eyes on the prize.” Our prize is to emerge from these difficult days stronger and more unified. Our nation’s darkest days were made that much harder by the divisions that separated us. Our most glorious moments were achieved when we came together in a common cause. We must renew that spirit of unity and embrace policies and procedures that embody Dr. King’s admonition that “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” All of us sometimes fall short of these expectations. But as we remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and reflect on the events of recent days, let us take these lessons to heart and keep in mind that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.)

On Thursday, I toured the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, along with Mayor Vincent Gray and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, set to open Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington. The memorial, just now going up, says much about why Dr. King’s birthday observance has a contemporary quality that sets it apart from others similarly honored. In fact, we still live in the age of King, in a country that continues to wrestle with race. But King’s life speaks to us well beyond race. Poverty (the Poor People’s Campaign), war (Vietnam), and nonviolence (civil rights movement, crime, gun proliferation) are mega issues that all have his signature. Seldom has a great man’s name been identified with so many of society’s large and enduring issues. Because King’s issues show no sign of receding, his birthday has the power to command reflection like no other.

King’s life is so rich with themes that speakers today regularly choose his issues, such as war and peace, because the United States leads two wars, or poverty, because of the recession’s effect on millions of low- and middle-income Americans. However, this year, and particularly for members of Congress, Representative Gabrielle Giffords is at the center of the nation’s consciousness and conscience. It is only natural on this King birthday that his principled insistence on nonviolence, even when under attack, would come to mind. Gabby Giffords’ words urging calm and civil discourse in the midst of verbal attacks were quintessentially in the King tradition.

Gabby had other options. After all, her district office had been attacked and she was the object of inflammatory language. Yet her response to personal attacks showed no trace of anger or recrimination. Gabby personified her own composed and reasoned calls for respect. Of course, Gabby could have remained silent for fear of offending some of her constituents in her swing district. She had barely won the district for a third term, making her one of the few conservative Democrats to win in 2010. Or she could have avoided summoning any and all members of the public to a non-secure place to tell her personally of their problems and complaints.

Instead, Gabby Giffords placed herself solidly in the King tradition when she avoided anger, rejected self-defense through increased security, and refused to be silent. Of course, King’s nonviolence was thoroughgoing, grounded in his religious beliefs and reinforced by the great philosophical texts from throughout the world. When faced with violence, he responded as a pacifist.

But he did not preach pacifism or counsel his followers to pacifist ideology. King developed his own philosophy of nonviolence and succeeded in the monumental task of infusing a mass movement with nonviolence, including in those of us who were young and restless in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

But King’s nonviolence never meant suffering in silence. Turn the other cheek had nothing to do with masochism. Love your neighbor did not mean let him prevail. King’s nonviolence had a corrollary in direct action. It was not noble for either an individual or our country to accept discrimination. We had an obligation to confront it. But violence in tone and words was understood to be as unacceptable as physical violence. Gabby Giffords accepted the responsibility King counseled. She showed more concern for civility in our country and for the institution where Members serve than she did for her personal safety. She took direct action. She spoke out.

King knew that his high visibility could lead to assassination. Gabby’s star was on the rise, but she was an unlikely mark for an assassin’s bullet, as, I believe, are most members of the House.

This year, I choose to think of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to give current meaning to the King observance because of her selfless determination to serve. Gabby will be on my mind for the way she met intemperate rhetoric with calm reason. I will think of Gabby Giffords in the future, too, because her remarkable will to live and to overcome her wounds have given us yet another way to understand and to be grateful for the magnificent life and example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.