That April day 43 years ago is eternally burned in my memory. As I walked through the front door of my house my mother was screaming, “He’s dead, he’s dead, they’ve killed him!” I didn’t know who the “he” was that she writhed in agony over or the “they” who killed him. But I quickly found out that he was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was a junior in college and the politics and activism of Dr. King, SNCC, and the Black Panthers had captured my imagination. I had begun to attend SNCC chapter meetings in Los Angeles, and hung on every word of black militants Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. I wore the grooves out listening to the recordings of Malcolm X’s speeches. And though Dr. King seemed rather passé by then to me and those my age, I still had a healthy dose of respect and admiration for him and the accomplishments of other civil rights activists. King’s assassination, though, was the rude wake-up call that great leaders, public figures, and others without names or stature could be cut down by senseless violence.
In a real sense this was my coming of age; the shedding of my innocence about the world and the way things often violently worked. I realized that more times than not people do evil things to other people, mostly innocents. I thought hard about the violence that claimed King’s life, and that of other public figures, John F. Kennedy, and Medgar Evers, a scant few years before King’s murder, and to my great sorrow and tears, Robert F. Kennedy a few months after King was gunned down. Their violent deaths did not jade me to the point where I thought the world was such a big, ugly, and violent, and undeserving place it was meaningless to try and help others, and even in my own modest way try to make a difference.
The murder of King forced me to balance my youthful blind faith idealism about change (and the people that I believed and trusted in to make change) with a pragmatic caution about people, their promises and their actions. In the years since then I learned to have a healthy dose of skepticism about politics and politicians, and the way government worked, as opposed to the school kid civics books pronouncements about democracy, peaceful change and political accountability. I found that greed, corruption and self interest more often than not characterized the workings of government and our political institutions.
The troubling thing, though, that nagged at me in the years since the King assassination, and the killing of other prominent figures, was the incessant need of anyone from a deranged and unbalanced kook to governments to blast away at enemies real and imaged and to settle disputes real and imaged with violence. The murder of federal judge James Roll, four other persons, and the critical wounding of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords can’t be divorced from the hyper charged polarization , division, and vitriol, name calling, blame and finger pointing that now characterizes political discourse in America.
As in the case with King, tough, I took heart in the outpouring of outrage, heartfelt compassion, and sensitivity, and prayers for the victims, their families, and the renewed demands that public officials do much more than spew empty rhetoric about the need to end violence in the wake of a mass carnage rampage. This sight to see is especially important for young people to see and be a part of. This insures that they do not sink into hopelessness and despair about America, and see the demons in all the actions and words of the older adult world. It’s especially important to recognize that the heinous murderous act of a 22-year-old is not the universal way that young people act out their passions, frustrations and fears.
The 2008 presidential campaign was graphic proof that despite the cynical, corrupt, and yes, violence, that at times seems to mark the world, millions of young people believed deeply in Barack Obama’s message of hope and change. They walked precincts, peopled voter phone banks, helped register thousands of voters, cheered wildly the impassioned speeches of Obama about reforming government and society, and dedicated themselves to a range of community help activities such as volunteering at homeless shelters, food banks, and residential facilities, as well as tutoring programs for underserved youth. They actively engaged themselves in trying to bring real change to the world.
The murderous act of James Earl Ray, King’s assassin, more than four decades did not snuff out my idealism and passion and that of many other young people to strive to make a better world. The act of alleged Tucson shooter shouldn’t and won’t snuff out the idealism and passion for peaceful change of many other young persons of this age.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on ktym.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson