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December 21, 2010

You've Got to Be Taught

As one media outlet after another conducts end-of-the-year reviews of the events of 2010—and images of extremists carrying loaded firearms to presidential speeches and children being terrorized by gunfire flash across my television screen—I am struck anew by the prescient words of Oscar Hammerstein in the 1945 musical "South Pacific":

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear
You've got to be taught
From year to year
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught
To be afraid
Of people whose eyes
Are oddly made
And people whose skin
Is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught
Before it's too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
Your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught

Exciting research data on the Millennial Generation, however, gives me tremendous hope for the future. Perhaps we can all vow to be a little more tolerant, a little more open, and a little more peaceful in the New Year. Happy Holidays to all!

December 13, 2010

The Shot Ignored Around the World

On November 29, at the close of a seemingly normal school day at Marinette High School in Wisconsin, 15 year-old Sam Hengel walked up to the front of his class, pulled out a semiautomatic handgun, and shot a hole in the room’s film projector. Hengel then held his teacher and 23 students hostage for approximately five hours before shooting himself when police entered the classroom. He succumbed to his self-inflicted injury the following morning. Authorities reported that the 9mm Luger High Point and .22-caliber Ruger semiautomatic handguns that Hengel brought to class with him that day were taken from a relative. Hengel’s duffel bag also held more than 200 rounds of ammunition. Grieving family and friends were baffled by the actions of the “model kid” they knew and loved.

Had this tragedy occurred in any other civilized country, it would have been breaking national news, with citizens glued to their television sets. Here in America, Sam Hengel’s death hardly made a blip on the media radar. The same disinterest was displayed recently when 19-year old Colton Tooley brought a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle onto the Texas University campus and ran amok before eventually committing suicide. In a country that loses more than 3,000 children and teens to gun violence ever year, these stories are, sadly, business as usual. Somehow, we’ve become tolerant of the fact that our nation makes deadly weapons readily accessible to young people.

To make matters worse, policy makers and jurists across the country are now considering measures that would put our teenagers at additional risk. First, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is pushing legislation in at least 10 states (Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia) that would force colleges and universities to allow guns on their campuses. Currently, only a limited number of schools in Utah, Colorado, Michigan and Virginia allow students and faculty to bring concealed handguns into classrooms, dormitories, libraries, etc. Both the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) strongly oppose the gun lobby’s campaign. IACLEA has said that it is “concerned that concealed carry laws have the potential to dramatically increase violence on college and university campuses that our Members are empowered to protect.”

Additionally, the NRA has filed two lawsuits in federal court in Texas that seek to overturn longstanding laws that prohibit 18-20 year olds from purchasing handguns from federally licensed dealers and carrying these weapons in public. During the past three years, the NRA’s plaintiff in these cases, 18-year-old James A. D'Cruz, has posted a series of violent comments on his Facebook Wall, including, "I will stare into your eyes as I pull the trigger and laugh as you hit the ground with your last, pathetic breath,” and “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, that’s why I take their heads.” Such comments differ little, if at all, from comments we have seen in recent years from school shooters. The NRA apparently has no regard for this young man’s well-being, or for the well-being of any young people in his age range. Currently, Americans ages 18-20 account for approximately 5 percent of the population but nearly 20 percent of homicide and manslaughter arrests. Allowing this demographic to buy handguns from licensed firearm dealers will clearly benefit gun industry profits, but not human life.

There are real solutions available to prevent the deaths of teens like Sam Hengel and Colton Tooley. 27 states currently have Child Access Prevention laws in place that impose criminal liability on adults who negligently leave firearms accessible to children. A 2000 study by the U.S. Secret Service found that school shooters got their guns from relatives more than 65% of the time. Studies have shown that Child Access Prevention laws are effective in stopping children from gaining easy access to firearms. "Adolescents act impulsively, whether or not they have psychiatric problems," said the associate director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, Matthew Miller. "It's up to parents—not children—to provide a safe environment."

We will have to overcome NRA opposition to such sensible policies to protect young people, but what else is new? First, however, we must acknowledge and overcome our current state of apathy about youth violence. We can’t save thousands of lives until we feel a sense of loss for an individual life like that of Sam Hengel.

August 23, 2010

A Day to Remember

By now, many of you have undoubtedly heard about the “Restoring Honor” Rally that will be conducted by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the National Rifle Association on August 28 at the Lincoln Memorial. The date and location are significant. It was on August 28, 1963, that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the memorial during the March on Washington. Beck claims the planning of the event was “divine providence” and says, “Blacks don’t own Martin Luther King ... Far too many have either gotten just lazy or they have purposely distorted Martin Luther King’s ideas.” Those familiar with Beck’s daily rants, however, would be hard-pressed to find any common ground between his beliefs/tactics and King’s.

I remember that unforgettable Wednesday in 1963 and how I dressed that morning in my only suit. Participants had been asked to dress as if they were going to church. I made my way down to the Washington Monument. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was to begin at the monument at 11:00 AM and travel the short distance to the Lincoln Memorial. The monument grounds were filled with thousands of cheerful people from all parts of the country and all walks of life. The atmosphere was like a joyous church picnic. The crowd waited patiently for the March leaders to emerge from a meeting with Members of Congress.

I found a place under some large trees on the north side of the Reflecting Pool and was brought to tears when the program was opened by Marion Anderson singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” It was a poignant reminder of the time—she had been forced to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because the Daughters of the American Revolution would not let an African American perform in their auditorium. The program featured speeches from the “Big Six”—leaders of the six major civil rights organizations—interspersed with performances by leading musicians and Hollywood actors.

The most memorable and inspiring speech came near the end when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. electrified the nation with his prophetic “I Have a Dream” speech, which became the hallmark of the entire event. King explained that the March had come to Washington “to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ … So we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

To honor King’s vision for America, social activists and civil rights leaders will hold their own event on August 28. The National Action Network, the National Urban League, the Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights are just a few of the sponsors of the “Reclaim the Dream” Rally and March. The rally will take place at Dunbar High School (1301 New Jersey Avenue NW—Mount Vernon Square/7th Street/Convention Center Metro Stop on Green/Yellow Line) in the District of Columbia from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM on Saturday, August 28. At 1:00 PM, participants will march from Dunbar High School to the site of the King Memorial on the National Mall.

Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network insists that the “Reclaim the Dream” event “is not a countermarch to Beck.” National Urban League president Marc Morial also emphasized this point, saying, “It is very important to convey a positive message that America belongs to everyone. Our rally is not an ‘us against them.’ We want no confrontation with Glenn Beck.” This is very much in keeping with Dr. King’s nonviolent teachings. When his home in Montgomery was bombed, King told supporters, “I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.” We can only hope that Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent will reflect on these words on August 28.

At the same time, however, Morial made it clear that those attempting to reclaim King’s dream do “want a confrontation with the ideas [Beck] espouses. His ideas seem to be ideas of intolerance.” Such an exchange can only be healthy for our country. We should keep in mind that Glenn Beck is the same man who told listeners on his March 2 radio show, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can. ‘Social justice’ and ‘economic justice,’ they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!

On August 28, 1963, I was proud to be one of the 250,000 Americans that marched on Washington for the precise purpose of seeking social justice and economic justice. On that day, the nation was exposed to the vision of a brighter, more prosperous, more inclusive future for all Americans. We now have the opportunity to reclaim that dream for a new generation, in a time when it couldn’t be more relevant. If you still embrace the goals of social and economic justice, please come out and join me and thousands of others on August 28 as we rally and march to celebrate one of America’s greatest leaders and proponents of full democracy.

January 19, 2010

Remembering Dr. King

As I paused yesterday to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I recalled his own words spelling out how he would like to be remembered. In a 1968 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. King said:

Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator — that something we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death, and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that's not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school.

I'd like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day, that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity...

Dr. King, I can assure you, I said all those things yesterday. And I’m sure I was joined by millions of others across the globe.