Monday January 21, 2013

Today’s celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has special resonance as it coincides with the second inauguration ceremonies for Barack Obama, America’s first black president. This is an event the slain civil rights leader would have loved to have witnessed.

Reverend King, of course, was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Robert F. Kennedy, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president and was preparing for a speech in Indianapolis, went before the crowd in this pre-Internet area and told them the horrific news of Reverend King’s murder. He then made what would become a famous speech urging his angry and heart-broken audience, many of them black, to remember the efforts of Reverend King to "replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love."

Last week, President Obama launched an admirably ambitious effort to combat "that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land" in the form of gun violence, a daily occurrence on American streets that only draws national attention when a massacre takes place. Mr. Obama’s proposals, which are by no means radical in nature, have already drawn an hysterical response from gun extremists, and as the president said last week, he will need the help of mainstream Americans if reform is to take place.

In his speech in Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy referred to the assassination of his brother, John F. Kennedy, five years earlier, in what were RFK’s first public remarks about that horrific day in American history. This year will mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder in Dallas, and much will be said and written about his brief tenure as president and his assassination in the months ahead. Less than two months after he spoke so eloquently about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy was shot dead by a gunman in Los Angeles.

Those three assassinations are an indelible part of America’s violent history, one defined by guns. The shootings of the two Kennedys have more than a little to do with why presidents and presidential candidates late in campaigns receive Secret Service protection. This history may have eluded the National Rifle Association, now reeling from the backlash to its nasty ad criticizing the president because he and his family receive such protection. Uncharacteristically on the defensive after Newtown and apparently bereft of coherent arguments, the NRA is resorting to the kind of campaign-style negativity that Americans are deeply fed up with after enduring the 2012 election season.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew more than a little about the perseverance needed to prevail in long struggles for justice. The movement to restore gun sanity to America, a movement Reverend King would undoubtedly have been pleased to join, will require such perseverance. As with civil rights, the stakes are high. And as with civil rights, this is a movement all reasonable Americans should join.