Today's holiday honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes at a critical juncture in the nation's soul searching over nonviolence and civil rights. The centuries-old fight for racial justice and the controls that President Barack Obama proposed last week on Americans' access to guns and ammunition open windows to the best and the worst of American character. King's example should continue to inspire the nation as it works to elevate harmony and kinship over conflict, intimidation and fear.
King was not the first man of peace to be killed by an assassin, but the contrast between how he lived and how he died endures as one of the greatest lessons in modern times. The Baptist pastor was a realist as much as a dreamer; he saw his Christian faith, Gandhi's success with nonviolence and the progressive arc of history as effective tools in the fight against evil and intolerance. Change was part of the human condition, especially when it liberated a person from shame. But King also knew the difference between nonviolence and inaction. And his insistence on holding on to his principles in the face of challenges by those who sought to foster change through more violence helped to broaden the movement for racial equality and isolate the forces against.
Obama has a narrower road in overcoming the shadow of the gun lobby in Congress to put reasonable restrictions in place on the sale and possession of weapons whose primary purpose and distinguishing trait is to kill many people. Still, the president faces an uphill battle in Congress to outlaw military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Obama and the majority of Americans who favor strengthening the gun laws should take a page from King's playbook.
The slain civil rights leader always recognized that racial equality was a goal that required movement across many fronts. He saw appeals to self-interest as powerful as appeals to one's morality. Obama borrowed that approach last week in unveiling his new restrictions, reminding Americans that the constitutional right to bear arms should not erode the inalienable rights to life, happiness and peaceful assembly.
Those are the sort of persuasive words that should bring Americans to the president's point of view. They capture King's legacy, and they are a reminder this holiday that all Americans have a stake in reducing gun violence, and at the earliest moment possible.