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The Conscience of the Nation


In his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated the context for his insistence on the tactics of nonviolence to win racial justice in the United States:

“…violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.

“In a real sense nonviolence seeks to redeem the spiritual and moral lag that I spoke of earlier as the chief dilemma of modern man. It seeks to secure moral ends through moral means. Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.

“I believe in this method because I think it is the only way to reestablish a broken community. It is the method which seeks to implement the just law by appealing to the conscience of the great decent majority who through blindness, fear, pride, and irrationality have allowed their consciences to sleep.”

Nearly a half century later, violence is the agony of our nation — the savage violence of a madman in Tucson, the callous violence of criminals in Prince Georges County, the daily rap sheet of murders and woundings families torn apart and communities devastated by weapons, mostly guns, turned against each other.

Dr. King led what might have been the most difficult, complicated and profoundly contentious revolution in human history — the revolution to achieve racial equality in a nation still haunted by its roots in slavery.  But even in the most difficult, precarious moments when victory seemed so distant, Dr. King insisted on nonviolence as a moral imperative for the civil rights movement.  He acknowledged the terrible violence that afflicted the Black community and civil rights advocates in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and yet, he still demanded nonviolent approaches.

In his address at Cobo Hall in Detroit in 1963, shortly before the famous March on Washington, King told his audience that the March on Washington was necessary to “arouse the conscience of the nation” to support the enactment of the Civil Rights Act.  The subsequent March on Washington remains an icon of justice, a turning point not only in national but in human history.  King succeeded in arousing the conscience of the nation.

Dr. King lived by nonviolent principles, but died in a sadly typical American way — in a hail of gunfire, in a violent act perpetrated by a lone gunman, James Earl Ray, inspired by hatred and vitriolic rhetoric against Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

At that prescient rally in Detroit, n 1963, King acknowledged the necessity of sacrifice, even the ultimate personal sacrifice of death by violence, in order to achieve the moral good of racial justice:

“There can be no great social gain without individual pain. And before the victory for brotherhood is won, some will have to get scarred up a bit. Before the victory is won, some more will be thrown into jail. Before the victory is won, some, like Medgar Evers, may have to face physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from an eternal psychological death, then nothing can be more redemptive. Before the victory is won, some will be misunderstood and called bad names, but we must go on with a determination and with a faith that this problem can be solved.”

We need a new call to conscience in this nation.  We need to internalize the lessons of the most recent terrible week of violence and madness to redouble this nation’s commitment to nonviolent social progress, not only the continuing and incomplete quest for racial justice, but the ultimate pursuit of human freedom, equality and dignity.

Re-reading King’s major speeches this weekend, I am struck, more than ever, at the current dearth of true leadership, devoid of political calculation, party loyalty, narrow self-interest.  No one in leadership on the current political scene has the backbone to challenge the appalling lie that the Constitution allows citizens to arm themselves to the teeth. Disarmament globally was once a central principle of the peace movement.  Where is the peace movement that will advocate in favor of individual disarmament?

This nation will never find peace in the endless quarrel over power and control and dominance of one group or the other, and by extension, one person over another.  Certainly, we can have robust debates about great ideas — read the history of our founding, and find in those great debates the most stunning examples of political and social courage for the sake of the nation.  Read the history of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the peace movement.  This nation has had great ideas, great debates and great leadership in the past.  Our leaders of the past knew the difference between debates about great ideas and vicious personal attacks, crosshairs on the opposition.  Where are the truly great leaders of today?

In a week in which we mostly debated whose rhetoric was sufficiently corrosive to trigger a madman’s fantasy, whose rhetoric is going to drag us out of this pit to our better selves, our more hopeful future?  President Obama made a start, but he is still too tentative in so many ways.  The polarities of the political environment have sucked the oxygen out of the space where leadership currently tries to live.  We need our leaders to be so bold that they will break out of that space, take us to an entirely new plane of social and political engagement.

We need leaders of the strength, backbone, eloquence and prescience of Dr. Martin Luther King, articulating a dream but also insisting on the nonviolent tactics necessary to achieve results.

See:  CNN.Com:  Civil Rights Veterans Say Today’s Hate Rhetoric is Deja Vu

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: