Thursday, January 17, 2013

Civil Rights, Dr. King, and the Gun Debate

By Garrett FitzGerald

A contemporary icon depicting Dr. King.
It feels almost like clockwork at this point, as we once again approach the holiday set aside to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. only to have that legacy invoked by those who would use it to sanction power and the violence it breeds.

We have run stories in years past documenting how agents of power, including the Pentagon, have attempted to usurp Dr. King's legacy of principled, faith-based nonviolence as a means of legitimizing their own ends. But ahead of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day next Monday, it seems a new and particularly appalling trend in the cooptation of Dr. King's legacy, and the legacy of the civil rights movement as a whole, is gaining ground in conservative circles.

Easily one of the most galling themes to emerge from the post-Newtown discourse around gun control has been the equation by hardline gun owner's of their aversion to desperately needed gun reform with the struggle for civil rights for the nation's African-American populations. And the parallels, when one stops to consider them, are indeed striking, at least insofar as one is willing to equate slightly more stringent background checks and a ban on the further manufacture and sale of military-grade weaponry with widespread disenfranchisement; ubiquitous economic exploitation and employment discrimination; the consequences and constant threat of direct violence and deeply-engrained systems of structural and cultural violence; and the holy scandal of such a highly stratified, unjust, segregated society.

Yes, when one is willing to concede those similarities in circumstances, the parallels do indeed become truly striking. 

As has become his wont in recent years whenever a discussion of gun reform hits the national airwaves, C-list rocker and A-list gun-toting lunatic Ted Nugent was among the first out of the gate in this latest race for the bottom. Nugent suggested last week during an interview with conspiracy hotspot WorldNetDaily that "There will come a time when the gun owners of America...will be the Rosa Parks and we will sit down on the front seat of the bus."

Nugent's choice of example is hugely problematic for a number of reasons which we will discuss below, but in this instance, the Motor City Madman (and I mean that in the most clinical sense) has actually been outdone in his ahistorical insensitivity by one Larry Ward, the chairman of the first annual "Gun Appreciation Day," to be held this Saturday, January 19th. Ward has already faced some criticism over the scheduling of Gun Appreciation Day - two days before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. But Ward is apparently not only unconcerned about the scheduling - and here's the kicker - but he also feels that Gun Appreciation Day actually honors the legacy of Dr. King. In a revealing interview this week with CNN's Carol Costello, Ward explained: "I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history." 

Ward has been roundly panned for his reductionistic suggestions about slavery and Dr. King's message, including an immediate rebuttal delivered by his co-panelist Maria Roach of United for Change US, who called Ward's claims "ridiculous." Not to be deterred, Ward appeared Monday on Rev. Al Sharpton's program on MSNBC, where Rev. Sharpton also had some choice words for him. Rev. Sharpton opened his interview with a full-court press on Ward's claims regarding Dr. King's legacy, asking: "You do realize that Martin Luther King was killed by a gun and that he preached all of his life against the use of any weapons and preached turn the other cheek? So you do realize that what you said was the total antithesis to Dr. King?"

Sharpton later added,  
Do you understand how despicable it would be to members of his family that saw their father killed by gun fire for you to say that you are in some way continuing his legacy on King weekend by doing 'Gun Appreciation Day,' when he preached against that and died from a bullet wound? Then to say that there wouldn't be slavery if slaves had the right to guns? Slaves didn't have any rights. They didn't have the right to marry; they didn't have the right to name their own children—why would they have rights to guns?
But as satisfying as it may be to see legitimate civil rights figures like Rev. Sharpton attempting to set the historical record straight in their conversations with self-serving nutters like Larry Ward, we must recognize that the trend toward conservative cooptation of the civil rights legacy, with its accompanying history, language, and imagery, represents a real and immediate threat to our national memory. 

We have previously highlighted some of the ways in which Dr. King's legacy, particularly as it pertains to issues of militarism and poverty, has already been thoroughly watered down or whitewashed entirely from our national narrative. So too, in pushing back against the appalling misremembering of civil rights history displayed by both Nugent and Ward in their attempts to seize the mantle of the civil rights movement for themselves, we are also resisting their attempts to divorce the history of individuals like Rosa Parks and Dr. King from the deeply principled forms of holistic, radical, nonviolent resistance that they practiced. The development of viable theories and practice of nonviolence, particularly those views articulated by Dr. King using the language and imagery of his own deeply held Christian beliefs, are among the greatest tools of resistance to oppression that have been passed down to us from the civil rights era, and contemporary activists cannot allow conservative elements to disengagement of these tools, and the ends to which they were employed, from the legacy of activists like Rosa Parks and Dr. King.

Consider the harm already perpetrated by conservative politicians on the narrative of Ms. Park's legendary refusal to abandon her seat on that bus in Montgomery. Contrary to the suggestions of conservative ideologues like Bill Frist and Mitch McConnell, Rosa Parks was not a lone, spontaneous actor whose singular show of defiance ignited an otherwise dormant movement. By 1955, the year of Parks' now famous act of civil disobedience, Parks and many other civil rights advocates across the South had been trained in the theory and practice of nonviolence at the Highlander School, a racially integrated movement program in Tennessee which would also help train Dr. King, and Parks herself was helping to train other in nonviolent resistance through the NAACP Youth Council. Parks was deeply involved in the movement for civil rights, and had already participated in many similar acts of civil disobedience. And the byword through which she and many others sought to obtain full recognition of their rights was nonviolence. 

There is obviously another side to the civil rights story as well, or perhaps one of many other sides, which conservative activists have been much more hesitant to claim as analogous to their current resistance to gun law reform: the history of violent resistance to racial oppression. You may notice that Nugent,Ward, and the other uniformly white pundits who have been stumping against gun reform have never yet compared themselves to any historical liberationist movements undertaken by people of color whose tactics included armed struggle and resistance. As Ira Glasser, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, pointed out this week in a letter to the Editor at the New York Times, contemporary advocates against gun reform are engaging in a not-so-subtle whitewashing of our nation's complicated history with gun ownership by framing the concerns of an overwhelmingly white minority of gun owners in terms of the broader rights of all Americans. From Glasser's letter:
Imagine what police departments and the F.B.I. would do if these statements were being made by Muslims in response to government harassment — probably gear up to infiltrate and entrap Muslim groups and perhaps even launch murderous raids against them. That is precisely what happened when young Black Panthers brandished arms during the 1960s. Where were the advocates of the Second Amendment then?
The fact is, if firearm proponents like Nugent, Ward, and their ilk were to go down in history for "making a stand" against even the limited, common sense proposals put forward earlier today by President Obama, their stands will probably have a lot more in common with Ruby Ridge and Waco than they will with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

But as we approach another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, some remnants of the legacy of Dr. King and the civil rights movement do seem to have endured. Although never commanding as much media attention as their unhinged counterparts who shill for the gun lobby, faith communities - progressive and otherwise - from around the country have emerged at the forefront of the push for reform of our current gun laws. The gun violence working group led by Vice President Biden, which submitted policy proposals to the President ahead of today's press conference, met last week with leaders from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian communities, and recent polling has confirmed that a majority of several major faith communities, including Catholics and Evangelical Christians, support for common-sense reforms to gun policy. 

The Sunday after the shooting in Newtown, CT, the Very Rev. Gary Hall, Dean of the National Cathedral, exhorted his congregants on the vital importance of renewed efforts to reform our existing gun laws, saying “As followers of Jesus, we have the moral obligation to stand for and with the victims of violence and to work to end it." Followers of Jesus or not, people of faith or not, we are all called to the table as members of what Dr. King referred to as the Beloved Community - that critical mass of holy human goodness in this world which, once reached, will allow us to stamp out violence and tear down the structures that breed it once and for all.  

This weekend, we are being asked to choose between standing with the tools of war or standing with a man who gave his life in the struggle to see war finally and forever thrown down. You can stand with Ted Nugent and Larry Ward, or you can stand with Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and the host of departed witnesses who devoted their time on this earth to eradicating the violence which plagues it. But Lord knows you cannot stand with both.

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