Today we commemorate the life and ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr. (No, not by shopping trips, although the nearby mall was packed.) Sometimes, with the confusion and fragmentation of modern criminal justice policy, and perhaps with a dash of cynicism, I seem to forget the power of ideas, or one big idea. I don’t have to look very far to find this power in the most innocuous, perhaps dated, piece of MLK, Jr’s writings, in this case “The Gift of Love” which appeared in McCalls, December 1966. Even in this most short piece which I quote almost in its entirety (sorry for takin’ up so much space, Mike), I don’t think I can possibly add anything to the original:
“I am thinking now of some teenage boys in Chicago. They have nicknames like ‘Tex,’ and ‘Pueblo,’ and ‘Goat,’ and ‘Teddy.’ They hail from the Negro slums. Forsaken by society, they once proudly fought and lived for street gangs like the Vice Lords, the Roman Saints, the Rangers. But this year they gave us all the gift of nonviolence, which is indeed a gift of love."
“I met these boys and heard their stories in discussions we had on some long, cold nights last winter at the slum apartment I rented in the West Side ghetto of Chicago. I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world. At times I shared their despair and felt a hopelessness that these young Americans could ever embrace the concept of nonviolence as the effective and powerful instrument of social reform.
“All their lives, boys like this have known life as a madhouse of violence and degradation. Some have never experienced a meaningful family life. Some have police records. Some dropped out of incredibly bad slum schools, then were deprived of honorable work, then took to the streets.
“To the young victim of the slums, this society has so limited the alternatives of his life that the expression of manhood is reduced to the ability to defend himself physically. No wonder it appears logical to him to strike out, resorting to violence against oppression. That is the only way he thinks he can get recognition.
“…In many a week in Chicago, as many or more Negro youngsters have been killed in gang fights as were killed in the riots there last summer.
“The Freedom movement has tried to bring the message to boys like Tex. First, we explained that violence can be put down by armed might and police work, that physical force can never solve the underlying social problems. Second, we promised them we could prove, by example, that nonviolence works.
“The young slum dweller has good reason to be suspicious of promises. But these young people in Chicago agreed last winter to give nonviolence a test. Then came a very long, very tense, hot summer of 1966, and the first test for many Chicago youngsters: the Freedom March through Mississippi. Gang members went there in carloads.
“Those of us who had been in the movement for years were apprehensive about the behavior of the boys. Before the march ended, they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to be called on to protect women and children on the march, with no other weapon than their own bodies. To them, it was a strange and possibly nonsensical way to respond to violence.
“But they reacted splendidly! They learned in Mississippi, and returned to teach in Chicago, the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force.
“And in Chicago the test was sterner. These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse, but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs. They did not reply in words or violent deeds. Once again, their only weapon was their own bodies. I saw boys like Goat leap into the air to catch with their bare hands the bricks and bottles that were sailed toward us. It was through the Chicago marches that our promise to them – that nonviolence achieves results – was redeemed, and their hopes for a better life were rekindled. For they saw, in Chicago, that a humane police force – in contrast to the police in Mississippi – could defend the exercise of constitutional rights as well as enforce the law in the ghetto.
“They saw, in prosperous white American communities, that hatred and bigotry could and should be confronted, exposed, and dealt with. They saw, in the very heart of a great city, that men of power could be made to listen to the tramp of marching feet and the call of freedom and justice, and use their power to work for a truly Open City for all.
“Boys like Teddy, a child of the slums, saw all this because they decided to rise above the cruelties of the slums and to work and march, peacefully, for human dignity. They revitalized my faith in nonviolence. And these poverty-stricken boys enriched us all with the gift of love.”