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Rev. Martin Luther King, at Atlanta Univ. for SCLC-sponsored student conf. (Photo by Howard Sochurek//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
On this day when Americans honor the Rev. Martin Luther King, who preached peace, justice and non-violence, it seems ironic that a violent rampage in Tucson has become our greatest concern.
Americans have been praying for Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Their hearts and prayers also go out to the families of all who died or were wounded by the crazed gunman, Jared Lee Loughner.
We are observing the birthday of King, a giant of American history, the man who sacrificed his life in the struggle to free his people---and we marvel at his personality and inspirational words. Like Abraham Lincoln, what King said and preached, stays with us. The words will be remembered a hundred years from now and beyond.
I met King unexpectedly on a night in April, 1958. He had been signing his newly published book at a Harlem store. A deranged black woman approached and stabbed him with a letter opener.
A few hours later, I approached Dr. King at his bedside in Harlem Hospital. I was stunned by how calm he was. He said he had no bitterness against Izola Curr, the 42-year-old woman who stabbed him in the chest. “I think she needs help,” he told me, “I’m not angry at her.”
Looking back at his oratory over the years he led the civil rights struggle, what he said that night was in keeping with his philosophy and his poetry. Consider: “Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man’s sense of values and his objectivity.”
“Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”
A half century later, President Barack Obama this week was telling the American people: “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized---at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do---it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
On the night that Dr. King was stabbed in Harlem, I confess I did not yet perceive his ultimate greatness. But the feelings he expressed, his empathy for a woman who almost killed him reflected the best that’s in us. I realize that now.
Lincoln, just before he was assassinated, spoke of the road he wanted to take “with malice towards none.” A few days later, he was shot and killed.
The themes of non-violence, of tolerance and mutual understanding resonate through our history.
It’s worth noting that Congresswoman Gabby Giffords wrote on her Facebook page that these lines from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address were her favorite quote: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
King, Giffords, Obama----they have shared reverence for the same ideals.