By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
This weekend we pay tribute to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy of racial equality, racial unity, and non-violence. The National Consumers League has a deep connection to the cause of racial equality – Florence Kelley, the League’s leader from 1899-1932, was a founding member of the NAACP. After last week’s violence in Tucson that left six dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords hospitalized with a grave bullet wound to the head, Dr. King’s message of nonviolence is needed now more than ever. The political landscape in the United States is polarized – Tea Party activists have captured the emotions of the right, and elected 40 new members of Congress who seem to believe government is the enemy. In the aftermath of this terrible attack in Tucson, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are looking for ways to display unity. We could sure use someone like Dr King today to help bridge that gap — not a politician but someone on the outside who can be a voice both of protest and reconciliation.
Dr. King consistently spoke about what was right, what was moral, no matter how unpopular. He and his followers paid a heavy price for their stance: in the quest for equal treatment for Blacks and their determination to dismantle Jim Crow, some of King’s followers paid with their lives. Others were jailed, attacked by dogs, and beaten by baton-wielding police. Yet they refused to attack back, preaching nonviolence that ultimately won the day and transformed America’s beliefs on racial equality.
Dr. King was consistent – when he saw prejudice and wrongdoing, he spoke out, even if it didn’t specifically address the cause of racial equality or was unpopular among members of his own community. For example, Dr. King opposed the war in Vietnam as early as 1967, tying his position to his belief in nonviolence.
I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men. I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
Similarly, Dr. King, in the face of Anti-Semitism from some members of the Black community, stood with Jewish Americans . “Antisemitism, the hatred of the Jewish people, has been and remains a blot on the soul of mankind. In this we are in full agreement. So know also this: anti-Zionist is inherently Anti-Semitic, and ever will be so.”
This weekend, as we pay tribute to Dr. King, a man whose bravery, eloquence, and righteous commitment to nonviolence in the name of racial equality, we’re reminded in the aftermath of last week’s violence in Arizona how much his voice is missed today.