Black History Month

Black History Month Martin Luther King Day: To Wield the Sword that Heals

Martin Luther King Day: To Wield the Sword that Heals

By Evie Shockley
Posted Jan 14th 2011 4:49PM

Martin L. King Jr, Martin L. King 2011, Martin L. King Day


Today we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., a man known to America and the world because of his commitment to peace: peace as the goal and as the key strategy.

If ever we needed a holiday to focus us on this ideal, it is now. I am unable to resist wondering what King would have to say about the most recent instance of American-on-American terrorism-the shootings in Arizona-but even to speculate is to be overwhelmed by irony.


An older and even wiser King might well have been here to speak to this sad occasion himself, had he not been the victim of precisely that sort of crime.The dictionary explains that "terrorism" is "the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons."

Acts like those of Jared Lee Loughner in Tucson this month and James Earl Ray in Memphis in April of 1968, whether or not committed in collusion with an organization, may silence not only the targets of their bullets, but the rest of us as well.

Dr. King's assassination was meant to end his life and to strike fear in to those around him and in the broader public. If enough people had become afraid to continue speaking out-and writing and marching and suing and legislating and voting and protesting and boycotting-for justice and equality, the United States might still be known for other forms of racialized American-on-American terrorism, such as lynching.

Instead, as King himself had done after the first attempt on his life in 1958, millions of Americans continued to insist upon the necessity of freedom for African Americans and justice for all.


When I remember Dr. King, it is, of course, to appreciate the tangible progress toward an anti-racist society that he helped to nurture and develop, but, as a poet, I also take note of the powerful, lyrical language he used doing this work.

This year, I am called to this passage from his book "Why We Can't Wait," where he describes the principle that formed one of the most effective tools in his work for equal rights:

"Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals" (12).

King's eloquent metaphor conveys the important difference between nonviolent direct action and bloody revolution: either mode can be employed by people who seek rapid, dramatic social change, but the latter method leaves both the seekers and their opposition injured. The Civil War stands as undeniable proof of this proposition.


King's philosophy and practices are often contrasted to those of Malcolm X during his years with the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party, as both are associated with advocating violence in fighting racism.

But these ideologically different groups shared a common emphasis on self-defense, at a time when the threat of physical violence to African Americans loomed not only from racist individuals and groups, but from the very law enforcement officers whose duty it was to protect people from violent attack.

This point suggests another great irony I confront in thinking about King's legacy this year: Those who would loudly condemn the revolutionary rhetoric of black radicals like the Panthers include some of the same people (or their ideological bedfellows) who are now wielding the rhetoric of violent revolution in a campaign to "take back" the U.S. government from other citizens who, like Representative Gabrielle Giffords and her supporters, have just as much right to participate in that government as any citizen.

This rhetoric ostensibly endorses violence against other Americans with different political beliefs-despite the fact that these others pose no threat of physical violence. Moreover, it creates a political climate that encourages people like Loughner to feel justified in targeting our elected officials for murder and leaves politicians and other kinds of politically engaged people feeling physically endangered for standing up for social justice.


Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has arrived not a moment too soon.

As we reflect on the things that King and other hard-working activists achieved together under the banner of nonviolent action, let's remember that there remains much work to be done and rededicate ourselves to the effort of creating a just society-one without second-class citizens or third-class residents.

This means continuing to speak, write and act on behalf of freedom and racial equality, regardless of the terrorist acts intended to silence our voices and keep us away from public spaces in fear of our lives. We cannot know what Dr. King would say if he were here, but this is certainly what his example teaches.

-- Evie Shockley

Evie Shockley is the author of "The New Black," a meditation on the shifting meanings of blackness and the impact of time on understandings of race, and three additional collections of poetry. She co-edits "Jubilat" and is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. Read her blog on Red Room.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum

31 Comments

Filter by:
whatsimonsaid

I remember when Black People in the United States Fought for our rights. How we stood up and confrounted those who were our oppressor. We did this by standing behind a man that took no thought about his own life . He fought for our civil rights and was assasinated because he believe that we the black Poeple in the United States would cherish that what he died for. Martin must be turning in his grave to see how much Black Americans have regressed in our civil rights. We have a Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that Sides with those that assinated Martin and oppose the civil rights of his own poeple. The media dose not reflect Black views and there are more negetive commentators that are anti black then ever before. Is this the legacy that Martin invistion for his people. white America can purchase today any black person or organization to suport there veiws on politics, the economy, education negatively against blacks and now sense we have a black president they have bought black men and women that will oppose the pesident no maater what he saids. if preident Obama say A the media and those blacks who have been bought will say B is this what King died for. where you can say the word ****** and get rewarded financially for the use of the word, then when that black person is rebuked for usingthat word you have an arguement on why we should use it. Oh Martin you gave your life for nothing because black poeple in America are giving it all back. we are being portrait as the nasties poeple on this earth our women have turn to ****** and our men are turn to pimps and gansters. and if you ask our youth who they want to be like they dont want to be like Martin they want to be where the money is ****** ,pimps and gangsters.

February 01 2011 at 4:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Reggie

Happy Birthday Dr. King. One step forward , two steps back.

January 18 2011 at 5:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ednbnks7

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DR.KING ON YOUR DAY.YOU PAID THE HIGHEST PRICE FOR PEACE WITH YOUR LIFE.THEY MIGHT HAVE SILENCE YOUR VOICE BUT YOU LEFT A RICH HISTORY OF OUR STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHTS OF ALL MEN TO BE FREE.I WAS YOUNG WHEN THE CIVIL RIGHTS FIGHT WAS GOING ON SO I KNOW ABOUT THOSE STRUGGLE S AND WHAT YOU AND THE FOOT SOLDIERS HAD TO GO THROUGH.THANK YOU FOR THE RICH HISTORY FOR OUR GENERATION,WE CAN LOOK BACK ON HISTORY AND REMEMBER THAT OUR FREE CAME WITH A PRICE AND THAT WAS YOUR LIFE.

January 18 2011 at 2:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
clemuelnash

Happy birthday Dr. King and a happy birthday to you
first lady Obama! I did your "I Have A Dream" speech
at a MLK celebration on Saturday. I did the entire
speech from memory, but more than that I did it
from heart. Guess what? There were more whites
present then blacks --- that's ok!

January 18 2011 at 1:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stephen Bopper

happy biethday To MLK, and all the bothers and sisters and abolishish, who stood up for the people rights especially black people, unlike those leaders of today who only interst is the dollar or TV camers.

January 17 2011 at 10:06 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mellowdude55

God blessed this man and the fight is not over RIP

January 17 2011 at 8:52 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
hahacaker

"Mocha & Milk" is a perfect match like "black & white" people
______[ Bl-a-ck ]''[ Wh-it-e ]'' [ Fl-ir-ts ]''[C0-''m] _____The most successful interra cial da t ing c lub. If you are still waiting for your sweet "milk" or "mocha", don't hesitate to check it !! Don't let your babies wait too long for you !!

January 17 2011 at 8:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
cheryl

Happy Birthday Dr. King
Thank u for the leadership rhat u provided during those horrendous years when segregation, brutality, and discrimination had a license to shut us down. You mentored us and opened doors that had been slammed in our faces. Headship, a man of authority, inspired by God. Our spokespersons of today need the same spirit that Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, Huey,Elgridge, Angela, Brown, Wilkins, Thjurgood Marshall, etc had. These so called concerned have caved in to the corporate world. But we still have great sermons. We will never forget You.
Btw Boyce:
No hero worship going here just tremendous respect and admiration for a great American who just happened to be African American.

January 17 2011 at 7:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rcjpete

Happy Birthday Dr.King as kid iwalk with in HollySpirit And All day my life God you and all .Once Again thank You

January 17 2011 at 6:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sylvia

I wish Mr. King was here today because yes we come along way but we still have ways to going. I would love said thank you for giving me the key to walk though the door of freedom.

January 17 2011 at 6:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply