In MLK's honor, let's strive for dialogue that's passionate but not poisonous
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; 2:30 PM
The senseless violence in Arizona this past weekend left all of us stunned, but this devastating act hit home for me more than most. I have been a victim of violence that could have cost my life, and I have been involved in controversies that led to violence in which my words were distorted and misused.
As we try to understand the steps that led to the horrors in Tucson, it is not lost on me that the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth is fast approaching. I hope that we can heal in this moment rather than just take sides and assign blame. 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.
As a first step, we must reflect on the climate in our public discourse and our personal responsibility.
The issues here are larger than the facts that six lives were senselessly ended and many other people were wounded simply for attending a political event. Those in politics and any other aspect of public life must be more conscious of how their words and actions can trigger anyone, not just those followers they expect might be listening. I raise the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric as a public figure who has been on both sides.
In 1991, weeks of protests followed the racially motivated killing of a black 16-year-old in New York. There were incidents of taunts, people throwing watermelons and open threats. I was leading a peaceful march in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, when I was stabbed. I look at that stab wound every morning. It reminds me of how close I came to leaving my children fatherless - all because of the intense political climate of the day. I wrestled for months with how to address that climate and the race-based attack. Even though this was an effort to kill me, I asked the court for leniency toward my assailant. In the spirit of King's teachings, my focus was to set a tone of forgiveness and reconciliation. Despite my efforts, the judge sentenced this man to nine years.
I decided to visit my attacker in jail. This was by far the most difficult thing I had to do - to look directly in the face of a man who tried to kill me. I told him I did it for me, not for him.
To be clear, I am not seeking credit for a noble act. Nor do I claim to be above feeling anger or understanding the frustrations that can stem from issues of race. Indeed, a few years later, a controversy erupted in Harlem over a white businessman's efforts to evict the longtime owner of the first black-owned business on 125th Street. I decided to support the protesters because I believed that the eviction disregarded the culture and history of the neighborhood.
The morning that I was to lead a peaceful march, 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.
As we sort out what happened in Tucson, we must resist the temptation to merely cast blame, and we all must be more aware of the weakness of the idea that we do not somehow contribute to the vitriolic atmosphere. Everyone must be alert. Much as I went over the line years ago, those with public voices must ensure that their messages cannot be misconstrued as calling for a heinous act. Every morning, I think about how wounds are very real - psychologically and physically.
I hope that as we celebrate the birthday of Dr. King this weekend, we can think as he did about how we can be passionate toward what we believe in without also being poisonous. It's time for all of us to strive toward a place where intelligent conversation supersedes nonsensical violence.
The writer is president of National Action Network, a civil rights organization.