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EDITORIAL: On MLK Day, emulate his vision, acts

York Dispatch editorial board
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on MLK Day, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

As the nation pauses to reflect on the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, it is hard not to contrast his message of nonviolent protest with the brutal acts of destruction on display during last week’s insurrection in Washington, D.C.

The King-led March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, for example, was a highpoint of the Civil Rights movement. A quarter of a million Americans joined together to lift their voices for social and economic justice. They gathered peacefully as songs and speeches filled the air, cheering leaders like King and challenging the nation to begin to act on its founding proclamation that “all men are created equal.”

The demonstration was a large-scale distillation of the decades-long campaign to bring equal rights to Black Americans — a campaign that relied on peaceful means to spread a powerful message.

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There was violence during the Civil Rights Era, of course. But was most often directed at, rather than instigated by, those fighting for equality and justice. From the Freedom Rides to lunch-counter sit-ins to the Selma-to-Montgomery marches to the Birmingham Campaign to end segregation, nonviolent protesters were attacked, assaulted, injured and killed, often with the causal compliance if not the active participation of law enforcement.

That type of blind hatred and aggression was very much on display by the rampaging mobs that stormed into the U.S. Capitol last week. There were attacks, assaults, injuries and, sadly, fatalities. And there was an unmistakable racist bent to the rioting, what with confederate flags, a noose hanging from a makeshift gallows and the predominately white makeup of the assailants.

And what were they protesting? What were they fighting for? Nothing as noble as equal access to education, or fair housing, or the right to cast a ballot.

Just the opposite: They intended to overturn a free and fair election and disrupt the peaceful transition of power. They were fighting democracy.

To Dr. King, who would have turned 92 Friday were he granted the years of his ally C.T. Vivian, the violence — and the motives — would have been all too familiar. The evil, taunting chants, the pounding on doors, the breaking of glass — these were sounds as familiar to Civil Rights protesters as the hymns sung to drown them out. They knew exactly what a confederate flag and a noose were meant to represent, and they recognized the danger inherent in those who brandished them — to themselves, their movement and the nation.

That danger continues today.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take the oath of office on Wednesday, under unprecedented security, amid a divided electorate and with a deadly pandemic surging unabated, democracy is under siege.

Dr. King would have recognized the threat. And he would have persevered.

It is easy to forget that, within the lifetime of our retirees, Black Americans were denied equal access to almost every aspect of society: not just schools and jobs and voting booths, but hotels, diners, recreational facilities, social organizations. Everything.

The Civil Rights movement changed that. It changed laws and it changed minds. And change is clearly needed today — the type of change Dr. King fought for and forged.

As the nation commemorates the foremost Civil Rights leader of the 20th century, all of us would benefit if more of our fellow citizens emulated the vision and methods employed by King — peaceful agitation for a free and just nation for all Americans — rather than the violent tactics used in opposition of that vision.