Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a day that provides Americans with the opportunity to reflect on our ongoing struggle for social justice and equality and a chance to renew our vision of what kind of country and people we want to be. This year, MLK Day falls in the middle of a profound period of grieving—not just for the victims of last weekend’s tragedy in Tucson, but for the entire country.
Americans want to believe this nation has moved beyond the violence that seems common in many other countries around the world. We like to think of ourselves as a peaceful society that solves our political disagreements with civic solutions rather than violence and angry rhetoric. Yet many public voices fell short this week as politicians and pundits continued pointing fingers and putting each other on the defense. However, a few remarkable and unsuspected voices did emerge this week, giving us hope and reason to believe that we can rise above our worst instincts and learn from our mistakes.
The first voice was that of Al Sharpton. Normally a fire-brand, political activist, Sharpton showed an incredible level of self-reflection and regret in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post this week. In his own pen, he recollected past events where his own words may have led to political violence and the loss of life:
I gave a speech during a weekly radio broadcast in which I said that we need to deal with a “white interloper” who was trying to alter the landscape of Harlem. My clear intent was to lead a peaceful protest. I did so that day, but I was wrong to refer to this man’s race, and I was not careful in making distinctly clear that we were solely calling for nonviolent opposition.
Two and half months later, a disturbed and troubled man went to a neighboring store and set a fire. He killed several of the store’s employees and then himself. My words were immediately raised in the media. My initial response was to defend the fact that I had never condoned such violence, and never would. But the fact is, if I in any way contributed to the climate – which was clearly more volatile than I had thought – I had to be more careful and deliberate in my public language rather than sharpen my defenses.
Next, there was the emergence of a new, surprisingly optimistic voice. The doctor who treated the victims in Tuscon, Dr. Peter Rhee, stepped before the cameras last Saturday and has become a guide and comfort through the tragic days since. Dr. Rhee was born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. at the age of 10. He served in the U.S. Navy for 24 years including stints in Afghanistan and Iraq where, according to the AP, he “handled “hundreds and hundreds” of battlefield injuries in two war deployments beginning in 2001. But beyond giving us the daily, hopeful updates of the injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Dr. Rhee reminded us that all victims must be remembered:
“People are injured every single day,” he said. “There’s nobody that’s more important than another.”
Finally, there was the poised young intern, Daniel Hernandez, who kept Congresswoman Giffords stable until medical personnel arrived. Standing next to the President of the United States, this young Mexican-American student displayed confidence and humility beyond his years and reminds us that heroism, as President Obama pointed out, “is here, in the hearts of so many of our fellow citizens, all around us, just waiting to be summoned.”
These three shining lights remind us all that we can rise above our worst instincts, be honest about our errors, brave in the face of calamity and warm and reassuring to our fellow man. Sharpton reminds us to what extent Martin Luther King Jr. rose above the violence and lived his life as an example to us all:
“Although his house was bombed, he was stabbed, and he lived under constant threats, Dr. King never pointed his finger at others. He sought to be a healer rather than exacerbate tensions.”
Photos by Pictoscribe.
FILED UNDER: Rhetoric