Each year on Dr. King’s birthday, I find myself reflecting on his message of equality and giving back. This year, as Americans grapple with the tragic events of Jan. 8 in Arizona, including the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, my perspective on the holiday has taken a different focus.
I was born the year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. My parents described the time as incredibly frightening. There was a sudden sense that anyone who stood up for what was right was at risk of being killed. My father, a passionate civil rights activist who had been sentenced to two years in prison for civil disobedience, suddenly felt that no one engaged in the politics of change was safe.
I know both Rep. Giffords and her chief of staff personally and I find myself deeply shaken by the Congresswoman's attempted assassination.
I remember talking to Gabby about the vandalism of her district office last spring. She certainly found it disturbing and was very concerned about the rhetoric, mostly used by the political right, to fan the flames of those who believed that somehow Congress’ actions, particularly on healthcare, were leading to an Armageddon for our country or an end to our way of life. She had no hesitation about heading back to her district to run a race based on her record and her passion for the community she loved explicitly for all of its diversity of views.
As we continue to process the shooting, how should we react?
My anger at talk show hosts and political leaders who have used violent and sometimes explicit “shooting” metaphors toward those who simply disagree on an issue was overwhelming that first day. Before learning the background of the killer, I had to restrain myself before posting equally extreme statements about who bore responsibility for his actions that afternoon. The language I was tempted to use would have been no better than that utilized by others, further escalating the divisive debate.
But in the words of Dr. King, “Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
Those in leadership at this difficult time must not ignore the Arizona tragedy or be intimidated into believing all we need to do is give a secret service detail to every member of Congress. We must step forward together to build from this tragedy to become a better people and return our discourse to one of wide-ranging ideas, not ugly attacks. We need to recognize that we want the best for the next generation and not participate in the divisive destruction of those who disagree.
The approach to Martin Luther King day over the past 15 years provides a powerful way to strengthen our collective soul. In 1994, the family of Dr. Martin Luther King asked us to make it “a day on and not a day off” and to spend the holiday engaging in service to others.
When I was the head of AmeriCorps VISTA, I was inspired by the response across the country to 9/11, when people were inspired to strengthen our homeland through giving back to others. On Monday, we have the same opportunity to create a powerful “soul force” to respond to this tragedy and stand up against the language of violence by making a difference in our local communities.
I hope you will join us in that cause.