Fifty years ago on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. King, among other activists, was supposed to attend civil rights protests underway in the South. The shooter, James Earl Ray, was eventually caught and sentenced to 99 years in prison in 1969 and died in 1998.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Strength to Love, a collection of King’s sermons, published in 1963
If King were alive today, we wonder what he would think about today’s American society that appears to have progressed a little when it comes to social equity, but still remains off-kilter with a continuation of racial imbalance. Further, we are a nation of people divided by fringe politics, incomes, perceived constitutional rights, social status, looks, even diet. American culture has become synonymous with radical distrust of one another, so much so that if it weren’t for egregious slayings — from South Carolina and Sacramento police officers shooting black men in the back to the mass shootings that seem to be occurring on a weekly basis — we wonder what the masses would share in common. It is curious to consider whether King would have predicted such a volatile nation. How many lives will it take for us to recognize that we are all suffering from lack of respect, connectivity, understanding and respect? If there is anything that King, and many other prolific peace activists, believed, it is that love — not fear, not hate, not anger — is the answer to a creating a truly civil society.
Over and over, the excuses build up — that person’s problem is not my problem. And it shows. On Tuesday, April 3, a woman went on a rampage at YouTube’s headquarters in Bruno, California, shooting and wounding four and leaving the woman dead, having turned the gun on herself. (Law enforcement said it related to her being upset with YouTube policies and not related to terrorism.) At what point did Americans turn the corner from political assassinations to shooting average people at work or in school? As if either could be justified, but what’s the point? Why are there so many turbulent people going under the radar until a mass shooting strikes? Why can’t we see dangerous instability in people we see and talk to every day?
While this isn’t a call for gun control or to advocate for gun rights, it’s simply a time to reflect on what a great leader for social justice might have thought about our nation’s current state of affairs. Perhaps he would see a silver lining when so many of us are living in fear. Maybe he would be able to conjure the potential for unity because, really, we are all just striving to live our lives in harmony and peace. Or would he be highly concerned that hope seems to be a thing of the past? If we take the time to ask ourselves what King would think about where we are today, we may be able to find the answer to a less hostile and divided nation.