It’s three months from the day 55 years ago when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life was cut short by a bullet in his head. And every year when we celebrate his birthday, invariably we ask ourselves whether things for which he fought and died have changed.
In fact, if you had told me in 1968 that African-Americans would experience the degree of civil rights and legal opportunities to which they are afforded in 2023, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. For that matter, the equal rights now afforded gay men and women, as well as women no matter what their sexuality, are also a product of the efforts made by King for which he lost his life.
But when all is said and done, however, thinking about MLK in the context of civil rights tends to obscure and, if anything, diminish what he believed to be the primary commitment that shaped how he lived and why he died.
Because MLK’s fundamental bedrock of belief wasn’t about civil rights. It was his love and devotion above all to non-violence, and in this respect, he might see his life as a failure if he were alive today.
In 1970, two years after King was assassinated, the national murder rate (per 100,000 residents) was 8.8. In 1990, the rate was 9.4. In 2000, the national murder rate was 5.9. There has been a veritable cottage industry in academe trying to figure out why the murder and violent crime rates in the U.S. declined by nearly 50% in the decade after 1990. But since we have moved into the 21st Century, the violence numbers have flattened out and not dropped again.
As a result, the United States is still the most violent country of all advanced countries, and the whole point of being at the high end of socio-economic development is that these are places where violence shouldn’t occur. In the rest of the OECD, the countries whose socio-economic circumstances make them the most advanced and organized societies in the world, the annual murder rate runs between 0.26 in Japan and 1.78 in Canada. The U.S. murder rate is six times higher than the overall average in the OECD.
The World Health Organization defines violence as a deliberate attempt to injure yourself (suicide) or someone else (homicide.) The WHO does not differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence. Fatal or not, an injury is a medical event which costs time, money, and resources to repair.
Of course, many injuries are not conscious or even unconscious efforts to hurt yourself or someone else. In 2020, more than 42,000 Americans died from falls, another 27,000 were either drivers or passengers in car wrecks, more than 80,000 killed themselves by overdosing on drugs.
On the other hand, more than 25,000 Americans killed someone else in 2020 and at least 1,375,000 patients were treated in emergency rooms for assaults. How many assault victims chose not to seek medical help and didn’t report the incident to the police? WTFK.
We have also been told that the Pandemic caused a lot of violence as people reacted to stress, lack of work, and other socially-disruptive factors brought on by viral disease. So how is it that Covid-19 seems to be on the wane, the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s ever been, and violence keeps getting worse?
Recall what I said above about how the WHO doesn’t distinguish between good violence and bad. Unfortunately, such a distinction is found in our legal codes. The United States happens to be the only country in the entire world which allows individuals to excuse themselves from being charged with violent behavior if they can prove that the violence was committed in response to what was or might have been violence committed against them.
There are now 38 states which have what are known as Stand Your Ground (SYG) statutes, which means that a potential target of an attack does not need to retreat. Another 6 states do not yet have an SYG law on the books, but case law supports SYG in those jurisdictions as well.
There are only 6 states which require that retreating before defending oneself against a threat is still the law, even though the Common Law, which is the basis of our entire legal system, does not acknowledge the existence of SYG at all.
Why is the United States the only country whose legal system has its roots in Common Law yet allows residents just about everywhere to exercise the ‘right’ to self defense by not backing down? That’s another WTFK.
If possible, try to spend a bit of time today thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then spend a bit more time thinking about what he and we have not yet achieved. Even if those thoughts help make this day less violent than other days, Dr. King would wish it to be that way.
So do I and so should you.
You can make a donation to the King Center here.