Maryville Daily Times: Editorial: Protest must not degenerate into physical violence

Posted on January 15, 2011

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring a man whose key words often go unheeded because they have gotten wrapped up in racial issues, political issues and some resentment of combining the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington birthday holidays.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Maryville made an interesting observation:

“Nearly 48 years ago, I found a spot at the back of the crowd gathered on the Washington Mall and listened to Dr. King proclaim that even the most righteous of fights must be waged in peace: ‘We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,’ he said. ‘We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.’

“Today we honor his nonviolent struggle to end racial prejudice, and we continue to strive to be a nation that recognizes all citizens — regardless of race — as equals who deserve the same opportunities to achieve the American dream.”

Today, Dr. King’s words have a much broader meaning as America has become more heatedly involved in various issues, not only those involving race.

Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years in the House of Representatives and is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University writes, “Don’t let the dialogue of democracy be a victim too.” That was a follow up comment after the recent shooting of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Arizona.

He notes that in a society as robustly talkative as ours, it is natural for people to step back and try to impose meaning on so traumatic an event — even if it was simply the deranged act of a deeply troubled young man. Without knowing the motivations of the alleged shooter this is all speculative, and it is far too early to try to draw political conclusions from the tragedy.

Hamilton is rightfully concerned about the further weakening of the bond between us and our elected representatives. Our democracy depends on members of Congress being able to mingle freely with the people they serve and participate in impromptu conversations and at organized listening sessions like the Congress on Your Corner event that Congresswoman Giffords was hosting.

The last thing we need are threats of violence from those who disagree on any issue or for those who respectfully speak their minds to feel threatened.

We need to reconsider these words of Dr. King regarding even the most righteous of fights which must be waged in peace:

“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.”

Nearly half a century later his advice is even truer regarding the many issues on which we as a nation disagree. We must protect the “dialog of democracy” or our nation will suffer untold damage.