When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, I was a seven-year-old whose parents permitted me to watch TV only under certain conditions (nightly newscasts, National Geographic specials, that sort of thing). I remember my parents being upset and letting us watch more TV than usual that week, so I saw a lot of coverage about MLK. Two months later, I had turned eight, and vividly remember my dad yelling from the other room for us to come and see the TV reports of Robert Kennedy's assassination. Both events are seared into my memory and helped to foster my lifelong interest in the career and writings of Reverend King.
When I became a legal aid lawyer fresh out of law school, I hung a quote by MLK on my office wall that at the time spoke to me as a stirring and eloquent statement against violence, as I worked to represent battered women. Over the years, that amazing quote also spoke to me as I formed my stance on the issue of the death penalty, and was a potent reminder of why I am a pacifist.
But now, here I am, as the executive director of a legal aid office, fighting against economic and social injustice, and Dr. King's legacy still has the power to inspire our work with the poverty community. The quote that was hanging on my legal aid office wall in the 1980's is from MLK's last published book, entitled "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" (1967). After the amazing achievements of his early career in civil rights, in 1967 MLK was beginning to focus more on the plight of the poor, realizing that all the Civil Rights laws in the world meant nothing if the structure that kept disadvantaged people poor was still in place. He spoke movingly in that final book about the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing and quality education to eradicate poverty and the crushing inequality that comes with it. He would have been 84 at the end of this month, and I often wonder if he were alive today, which causes would he champion? Surely, the call for economic and social justice, the crucial rights that poor people have to be treated with respect and afforded the same rights as rich people, would be foremost in his thoughts. Would he fight for civil legal aid to be properly supported? Would he stand up for the right of a poor person to be represented by counsel when faced with civil legal issues?
When I read the familiar yet ever challenging words of this quote, I am grateful for Dr. King's other dream, the dream of economic and social justice, and the inspiration it gives us forty-six years after those words were written.
From "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" (written in 1967 by Martin Luther King, Jr.):
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence, you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, or establish the truth. Through violence, you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness - only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."