The 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination is sadly a searing reminder of unaddressed gun violence in America. And because gun violence has gone unaddressed for half a century, the future generations of children residing in a safer and healthier America who MLK spoke about so dreamingly in his speeches now live in fear of guns, or in some case are running scared for their lives from them.
During the March for Our Lives student-led demonstrations demanding safer gun laws that took place in Washington, DC last month, one of the surprise guest speakers was nine-year-old Yolanda Renee King, granddaughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like the hundreds of thousands of children and teens who came to the nation’s capital with the mission to end school shootings, Yolanda Renee King told the audience, “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of the skin, but the content of their character.” Standing on stage alongside one of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors, Yolanda shared her dream with the crowd: “This should be a gun-free world, period.”
As I watched King’s cherubic-looking granddaughter deliver her speech to a cheering crowd, I nearly cried realizing Yolanda never met her grandfather, because a bullet shortened his life leaving us all wondering how long he could have otherwise lived.
As King wrote in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in April 1963, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. … This is the interrelated structure of reality.” In 2018, no one could have fathomed the top issue contemplated by American school-age children is the epidemic of school shootings—whether in wealthy suburbs like Newtown and Parkland, or urban cities like Chicago and Baltimore. Gun violence is killing our children, and gun reform continues to be an issue as a country we can’t seem to budge on.
It was a similar problem 50 years ago.
Just two months after King’s death in April, with a nation still in mourning, New York Senator and then-presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June. His brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated five years earlier in November 1963. Immediately following JFK’s assassination, King told his executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Andrew Young, Jr., “Guns are going to be the death of this country.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson thought so, too. Johnson wrote to Congress requesting stronger gun laws in the wake of RFK’s death. “Far too many [guns] were bought by the demented, the deranged, the hardened criminal, and the convict, the addict, and the alcoholic. So, today, I call upon the Congress in the name of sanity … and in the name of an aroused nation—to give us the gun control law it needs.” Johnson passed landmark civil rights legislation during his tenure, but he could not make a dent on gun reform.
King would have been proud of the March for Our Lives demonstrators. It demonstrated the collective power of children and teen activists to shame and to bring recalcitrant Second Amendment advocate lawmakers to their knees as the “Children’s Crusade” of 1963 did in Birmingham, Alabama. The Children’s Crusade braved arrest, fire hoses, and police dogs to bring to the nation’s attention their state’s unrelenting segregation laws.
I don’t know if MLK could have ever imagined an epidemic of school shootings. No one could. He did, however, speak out about America’s children being reared on a steady diet of violence, suggesting a link between watching violent acts in movies or television shows resulting in antisocial behavior or acting aggressively in life.
“By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes,” King said in 1963.
King’s assassination shocked the nation. The alleged weapon was a Remington 30-06 hunting rifle, a firearm easily obtained at the time, like the AR-15, which was used in the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, is today.
The high volume of school shootings can be blamed on the NRA, as well as on its allies, all of whom employ similar tactics that were used 50 years ago to obstruct gun safety legislation. No one back then, however, could have fathomed the NRA would use such tactics against the safety our children. But our children have spoken up, and they want sweeping new gun control laws now and not crumbs.
King’s assassination is a glaring reminder of what happens to a future generation when an important issue like gun safety goes unaddressed. In King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech he said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
I’m hoping lawmakers are listening this time.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.