There is a certain grim coincidence to the Tucson shootings and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday falling a week apart.
Both King and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., were fully exercising the prerogatives of our democracy, King to speak out on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers, Giffords to meet informally with her constituents.
King was murdered in an ambush by a lone gunman of malevolent motives; Giffords was gravely wounded from behind by a gunman with deeply twisted motives. Both incidents set off a round of national soul searching, raising the possibility that our society had wandered badly off course.
The Rev. King would have been 82 this weekend. His life was too short — he was 39 when he died — but he left a legacy of speeches and writings that eloquently expressed America's idealism.
The members of the U.S. House of Representatives chose to begin the year by reading the U.S. Constitution aloud. In another grim coincidence, Giffords read the First Amendment whose rights of speech and assembly guaranteed her and King's activities on those days. The reading was done for political purposes, but it might not be a bad thing if the Congress from time to time read aloud from our essential documents.
One of them would certainly be King's "I Have A Dream" speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
He gave perhaps the best and most succinct summations of a vital promise in the Constitution, still unfulfilled but far closer to being realized than when King spoke:
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."
His letter to the local clergy from the Birmingham jail, also 1963, is still one of the best, and certainly one of the most moving, descriptions of the goals and tactics of the civil rights movement and the injustices that brought it about.
King showed that there is a place for eloquence in politics; it does not have to be all sound bites and invective; it can be a soaring appeal to the best in us and our form of government.
When Giffords recovers — and, as one fervently hopes, returns to politics — perhaps she'll come back to a stage where, as President Obama said at a memorial service for the Tucson victims, "we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds."
King would approve. To quote the refrain with which he concluded his "Dream" speech, "Let freedom ring!"
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