An Echo of the King Killing

By Sides, Hampton | Newsweek, January 24, 2011 | Go to article overview
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An Echo of the King Killing


Sides, Hampton, Newsweek


Like the suspect Jared Loughner, James Earl Ray filled his empty, scrambled life with a murder.

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today--he would have turned 82 last week--he would in all likelihood be in Arizona, marching against the forces of violence. Not that he'd be particularly welcome there. Arizona, of course, is the state whose former governor, Evan Mecham, made headlines back in the 1980s defending the word "pickaninny" and scrapping the state's observance of the MLK holiday. King's views on the Second Amendment would be suspect in many parts of this heat-packin' state--a place where firearm ownership, entwined with a certain strain of reactionary patriotism, has in some quarters reached the level of High Creed.

A surprising number of Arizonans love their gun shows, their firing ranges, their border posses, their libertarian civics classes, their Ayn Rand novels, their Wild West laws allowing them to carry concealed weapons pretty much anywhere they've got a hankering to go. Tombstone, with its O.K. Corral, is a national shrine dedicated to the blunt grandeur of the shootout. In Palin-speak, Arizona doesn't need to reload--it carries a 33-round clip.

King would be in Arizona for many reasons, but the main one is this: throughout his career, he was absolutely committed to nonviolence as both a philosophy and a tactic. He did not believe in bodyguards, certainly not armed ones. No one in his entourage was allowed to carry a gun or nightstick or any other weapon. The very concept of arming oneself was odious to him--it violated his Gandhian principles. He wouldn't even let his children carry toy guns. In an almost mystical sense, he believed nonviolence was a more potent force for self-protection than any weapon. He understood the threats against him but refused to let them alter the way he lived.

Far from being timid, King's pacifism had a confrontational edge. His marches often attracted violence and served as powerful magnets for turmoil and hate. That was their purpose, in fact--to expose through choreographed drama a social evil for all to see, preferably with cameras rolling.

So everywhere King went, the threat, and often the reality, of violence loomed. His grace and courage in the teeth of this hostility were otherworldly, and they're something I think about every MLK Day. His house was firebombed. He was punched in the face by a Nazi. He was hit in the head with a rock. In 1958, a psychotic black woman stabbed him with a letter opener while he was signing books at a Harlem department store. Though King nearly died in that incident--the blade came within a hair's breadth of his aorta--he refused to press charges. The day before he was killed, King's plane to Memphis received a bomb threat. The possibility of death was such a constant in his life that he adopted a futile acceptance of it. "If someone wants to kill me," he said in Memphis, "there's nothing I can do about it."

Sadly, the events in Arizona last week carry many odd hints and echoes of the events in the spring of 1968 that culminated in King's death at the hands of James Earl Ray. Then, as now, the country was fighting an intractable and apparently interminable war against a hard-to-find enemy on the other side of the planet--a conflict that had drained the nation's coffers and left the populace fatigued and paranoid. Then, as now, the airwaves seethed with reactionary speech. Then, as now, gun sales were going up, up, up.

Ray, the Illinois-born career criminal who was convicted in 1969 and served the rest of his life in prison, was not a psychotic lunatic in the way that Jared Lee Loughner apparently is.

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