Americans have been formally honoring the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. since 1986, when the martyred civil rights leader's birthday became a formally observed national holiday. But in light of the tragic events in Tucson, today's pause in tribute to King's legacy of nonviolence is particularly poignant — and timely.
King dedicated his brief life to the pursuit of bringing about freedom and civil justice through the peaceful assembly of citizens to petition their government for the redress of grievances — the very cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. He paid a dear price for his commitment to the power of words to change hearts and minds. Throughout his crusade for racial equality, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was often beaten, rousted and arrested before an assassin killed him in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Indeed, King's work, his unerring belief in fundamental American decency, even when that decency wasn't all that apparent, was an inspiring testimony to the nation's democratic ideals.
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was taking part in the same sort of classic American enterprise of community engagement, meeting with her constituents, listening to their concerns, making herself accessible to the public, when she was gunned down in Tucson nine days ago. As Giffords continues to make a remarkable recovery from her injuries, much has been said and written about the need to return to a more measured and civil tone in the country's political discourse. One of this nation's greatest orators, King knew literate, thoughtful and reasoned speech would always trump — eventually — invective, demagoguery and perniciousness.
Normally national holidays simply become an opportunity for many to get away from their jobs to relax, shop, or hit the beach. But on this day, in the wake of Tucson, the nation should pause and remember that Martin Luther King's nonviolent advocacy for social justice remains an unfinished ministry.