In 1963, a group of prominent white Alabama churchmen wrote King an open letter demanding that he call off demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham. The churchmen ridiculed King's efforts by branding the demonstrations "untimely" and "unwise." King's first reaction was to shrug off their belittlement as the rantings of yet another pack of do-nothing obstructionists and naysayers who delighted in sitting on the sidelines and taking cheap shots at any effort made for change. They, of course, wouldn't lift a finger to contribute their time, energy or dollars to groups and individuals who are trying to make positive change. King made an exception and responded to his frozen-in-the-sand critics with his famed "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (pdf). He wrote that the demonstration "seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored." King went further and said radical action was needed to wake up citizens and involve them in the change fight.
His response spoke to the ages and applies to The Times' editorial board. It blasted the call by the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, the Los Angeles Civil Rights Assn. and other civil rights groups and leaders for advocating a 40-hour moratorium on killing to mark the 40th anniversary of King's assassination. It supposedly sullied King's name and legacy. What tipped readers off to The Times' misunderstanding, or deliberate distortion, of the goal of the moratorium was its incredibly sloppy, wrongheaded and idiotic earlier news headline, "L.A. City Council rejects ‘ban’ on homicides." The Times buried the fact that the council ultimately approved the resolution. The vote was unanimous.
King, of course, passionately and eloquently argued in countless speeches, letters and interviews for nonviolence and ending killing, whether in Vietnam or the streets of America's cities. In an article published 12 days after his murder, and what stands as his last admonition, his voice still rang out loudly for an end to killing. The moratorium in his name was not a silly, utopian or wasteful call to end homicides. It was simply a challenge to L.A. residents who have seen many neighborhoods torn by violence to pay tribute to King, one of history's foremost and most beloved champions of nonviolence.
The call asked for a period of reflection and thought on the meaning of King's life and death by violence, and asked residents to dialogue with friends, relatives and loved ones in schools, at work and on the streets about ways to prevent violence in our city. It was a timely opportunity for citizen and community engagement, even empowerment, in the ongoing and tormenting fight against murder. The moratorium was a rare chance for Los Angeles to provide a working example and a model for peace and nonviolence for other cities. The moratorium showed what could be done when citizens join in the fight to take back their streets.
We talked with many persons old and, especially, young. They, unlike the tin-eared, blinded naysayers and head-shakers on The Times' editorial board, got the point. They did not ridicule or belittle the moratorium call. They are the ones who are most at risk from violence. They hardly considered any effort to reduce that risk as silly. They understood that if the moratorium saved even one life, the correct word that starts with the letter "s" to describe it is not "stunt" or "silliness" but "success." This sailed way over the head of The Times' editors. Unfortunately, the moratorium did not attain one goal, namely, no homicides during the 40-hour period. There were several fatal shootings. But the moratorium did attain the larger goals of calling attention to King and his struggle for nonviolent solutions to conflicts, and in engaging the community to continue the search for proactive solutions to the murder plague in L.A.
Does this sound like something that's silly or a stunt?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. His new book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House," and he blogs at The Hutchinson L.A. Report.