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Narrative Inheritance, Redux: What We Should Learn Again From Martin Luther King, Jr.

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But clearly we have not done anything much, if anything at all about murder in the United States.   Instead, during those twenty-two years funding for mental health has significantly declined and there are far more weapons of mass destruction, in the form of assault rifles and handguns useful only for killing lots of people fast, in the hands of our fellow citizens.   Have we quietly forgotten those fourteen cases or mass murder?   Or the over 150,000 murders overall?   I think the evidence is clear that we have.

So why would I mention these disturbing murder cases, or Jared Lee Loughner, in an article that recalls the excellent legacy of Dr. King?  

I do it because I remember.   I remember that as a young man I lived through the years that led up to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.   I lived through the "lone wolf" assassinations, or conspiracies as all of them might have been, in the killing of JFK, and then killing Bobby, and then killing Dr. King.   I remember that in each case the gunman was called "a nut job," whether that particular nut was alleged to be, as was Oswald, a Communist (and therefore a nut job because all Commies were, during the cold war, by definition, nut jobs); or he was, like Sirhan Sirhan, an anti-Israel Palestinian (and therefore a nut job because, at the time, most pre-global village Americans didn't give a tinker's damn about Jews and Arabs over there ); or he was, like James Earl Ray, Jr., a violent Southern racist nut job (because while racism was, in the late 1960s, largely becoming unfashionable throughout America, violent racists from the South were still thought to be a breed apart from the rest of the country, and therefore, adding regional insult to alleged injury,   just a bunch of redneck nut jobs).

We often label as crazy what we either don't understand.   We may never fully understand the motives of Oswald, or Sirhan, or Ray, Jr., if in fact it was any of those persons who was alone responsible for the assassinations we narratively associate with them.   That any of these lone wolves was inspired by the extremist political rhetoric of the times or was motivated to commit murder because of something they heard on the radio or watched on television or read in a book, well, who knows?   It is pretty clear that "the turbulent "60s" was an era of such talk.   But, again, who really knows?   If anything, these violent acts that were attributed to "nut jobs" only contributed further prejudice to a nation teeming with anti-Communist, anti-Palestinian/Arab, and/or anti-Southern racist sentiments.  

If anyone learned anything from arguing about the politics of these murderers, it was this: They were crazy and wrong and we are sane and right.   Please feel free to fill in whom you think "they" are/were and who "we" are/were.   "They" were crazy and wrong because "we" don't believe what they believe.   And of course we are right.   "They" were crazy because only crazy people put bullets into the heads of our leaders and representatives and they are wrong because "we" certainly wouldn't do that.   And why wouldn't we do that?   Because "we" don't believe that regardless of the vitriolic rhetoric that passes for political talk that any sane person would kill somebody because of it.   That would be just crazy.

Or maybe we just don't want to believe that unless crazy is the reason that such a heinous thing is possible.   Or that it is likely.

Yet there is a lot of evidence that suggests we must be crazy ourselves to think like that.   There is the evidence provided by the examples of Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, Jr., and the fourteen shooters since 1988 that preceded the murderous rampage in Tucson.   If we imagine that words don't inspire actions, we are deluding ourselves.  

The question "did Loughner do what he did because of Rush, or Glenn, or Sarah" is the wrong question.   The raw fact is that there is a Rush, a Glenn, and a Sarah--as well as a host of others--calling for hate to replace reasoned debate and that is a far more relevant issue.   But in the same way that we don't expect mental health care to suddenly receive money or gun control laws to be enacted, neither do we really expect that politicians and pundits will "dial it down," or that political debates won't turn into shouting matches or filibusters.   Or that much will actually change.

That, too, is a choice we make.   That, too, is part of our narrative inheritance from assassinations past.   Not much changes.  

Unless it does.   Unless it is forced to change by the use of words and actions.   Without the application of rhetorical force to the problems at hand, history recedes into the past and life goes on.   We are sad, of course, but we get over it.   And without the hard work of passing legislation and improving funding to make possible progressive change, it won't happen.   But for some reason today we hope--somehow--that our capacity to feel sad somehow translates into a free pass not to do the hard work required for changes to occur.

Today we mark the life of a man who stood for and spoke eloquently about what we can do better, about the transformative power of nonviolent revolution, but we also should remember the hard work of others who turned his death into a cause for progressive changes.   Everywhere we will hear excerpts from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s finest hours as an American orator whose words inspired a political movement for change.   But it worthwhile to note that it is what happened after those speeches that transformed our society. We have an African-American president, a fact of our lives unimaginable in King's era.   The racism and bigotry of the past today seems exactly that--the remnant of a bad but bygone era.   That racism and bigotry still exist is undeniable, but it is far less tolerated anywhere in America, and for that we are better people.  

That progress was brought about not just by King's words, not just by our sadness at King's passing, but also by deeds done by him and by his followers.   By those of us who demanded that the dream he had became a reality.   It was created by the passage of laws that made it possible for black children to share schools with their white counterparts, for equal opportunity and protection from prejudice to redefine employment and housing and health care.   That enabled children of every race who grow up with less educational opportunities to attend college and not only that, but by assuring that once in college they have resources made available to them to help them succeed.   That lobbied for and passed legislation that made it possible for minority-owned and operated small businesses to flourish. And so on.

A few years ago I wrote a scholarly article about "narrative inheritance."   In it I discussed the negative effects of secrets in families and, by extension, the negative effects of secrets in free societies dedicated to democratic ideals.   One action implicates the other, because, just as no child is born into this world a racist neither are children born as keepers of secrets; in both cases, racism and secret-keeping--as well as million other inherited habits of mind and of action--are learned, and usually they are learned at home.   Inherited narratives are what we pass along to our children.

So it matters what we do in response to a tragedy.   When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the bad news was that riots broke out and cities burned.   But then came the good news: These days of rage were replaced by years of steady progress making the better world that King, and the Kennedys, envisioned.   Laws were passed, funding was free up, and a generation later, we can see that it is possible to change the world when inspired by our leaders.

Today, I hope we remember Dr. King.   I want us to remember not only his words and his actions, but the actions and words of those who followed him, for all those people whose names we don't know who worked for years for the changes he foretold.  

But I also want us to think about how we have allowed ourselves to become a people who no longer work for changes that are hard, for changes that take on powerful gun lobbies and hate speech advocates and those who do not believe that a government dedicated to the public good should also pay for health care, including mental health care, for its citizens.   I want us to rethink that common lack of commitment to change.   I want us to ask ourselves if that is the story, if that is the narrative, that we want to pass down to our children, and to our children's children?  

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H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive (more...)

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MLK, Jr.'s rhetorical legacy is one of changing ho... by Bud Goodall on Monday, Jan 17, 2011 at 8:41:12 AM