Taming the savageness

Ian Sams

Forty-two years ago Saturday, Martin Luther King Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop, peered over, and seen the promised land. He eerily and almost prophetically said, “I may not get there with you,” and tragically — within 24 hours — his journey through a vast and arid desert was cut short. On April 4, 1968, a dream was deferred.

King had staked his life on the notion of equality. The message was open and inviting as it simply called upon our nation to live up to its creed. “Be true to what you said on paper,” King said to America.

And King’s rhetorical method unified and integrated multiple Americas. It didn’t push to exclude southern whites or oppositional legislators. It never called on anyone to employ the bullet over the ballot. Rather, it implored America to allow a free ballot. It brought Democrats and Republicans together and led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

On the night that King was murdered, Robert F. Kennedy, then a United States Senator from New York campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, spoke to a large gathering of African-Americans in Indianapolis. He informed them of King’s death, asked them to pray for King’s family and called upon them to pray for a new country.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another,” he said

Kennedy’s words, coming only two months before his assassination at the hands of anti-Zionist Sirhan Sirhan, echo the words of many in our country today. Thankfully, we have not had to endure, as a nation, tragic and inexplicable losses like those of the 1960s. But, in many ways, a new, more nebulous divide has emerged in modern society.

This divide isn’t based on race, nor is it rooted in class, though both certainly factor into the equation. It isn’t even spawned from partisanship. Rather, it comes from a deliberation to employ rhetoric wholly converse to that of King.

In the aftermath of the passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, protesters happily — and often at the encouragement of state and congressional leaders — sent threatening letters and emails to supporters of the bill, including threats against the homes and families of many members of Congress.

At a Tea Party rally at the Capitol, a sign emblazoned with a yellow “Fire Line Do Not Cross” border and a prominent image of a handgun could be read that said “If Brown can’t stop it, a Browning can,” referring to employing violence if Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., could not stall the bill.

Glenn Beck relies nightly on the politics of fear to proclaim our Founding Fathers as de facto libertarian Christians who would encourage resistance if not total rebellion of today’s government. His incessant equation of government action with socialism or communism and his manufactured visualization of President Obama as a Marxist or even a Nazi have stoked up an ideological ignorance reminiscent of those of Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare in the 1950s.

And, as I wrote last week, the same Tea Party rally I mentioned above saw protesters calling Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who marched in Selma and was one of Dr. King’s contemporaries in leading the Civil Rights Movement, a “nigger” while he walked to the House chamber to debate the health care bill.

So, here we are. Forty-two years since Martin Luther King was taken by gunfire for opposing the rhetoric of fear, rhetoric that encouraged the use of the word “nigger” and advocated violence — either against whites in power or against blacks stirring the pot — and we still face a divided America.

Forty-two years since Bobby Kennedy called for love and wisdom and compassion—compassion that operates out of respect and empathy — and we still face a divided America.

In so many ways, it’s been forty-two years and the same disagreements and the same name-calling and the same fundamental ignorance still plague us.

On the same night he spoke of King’s death, Kennedy said, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

As we remember the life of Martin Luther King, and the resurrection of a man who brought peace and redemption to a troubled world, let that dedication endure.

Let our generation take up the task of fostering compassion and seeking wisdom.

Ian Sams is a junior majoring in political science. His column runs weekly on Monday.