Violence then, violence now: Fifty years later, let's prove that nonviolence wins in the end

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Two turning points in the civil rights movement mark 50th anniversaries this summer: the assassination of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug. 28, 1963. In addition to their importance in the history of civil rights, these anniversaries provide an opportunity to examine the fraught relationship our country has with violence 50 years later.

A field secretary for the NAACP, Medgar Evers died in Jackson, Miss., when he returned home from a meeting late at night and white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith shot him in the back under cover of darkness. Evers died at the end of a rifle he couldn't even see. To his wife Myrlie and their children inside the house, the noise must have been deafening.

Like all those involved in the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers sought social change through social protest, gaining prominence when he helped black student James Meredith gain access to the all-white University of Mississippi. Evers also helped organize the nonviolent protests characteristic of the movement, including boycotts and voter registration drives.

When De La Beckwith shot Evers, it was an act of racial hatred meant to terrify and silence others involved in the civil rights movement; it instead spurred many to action. Author Eudora Welty wrote about the murder in The New Yorker magazine that summer, imagining a shooter who told his victim, "We ain't never now, never going to be equals ... " In a song about Evers' murder, Bob Dylan imagined a shooter who had been taught "that the laws are with him to protect his white skin."

That August the civil rights movement responded with a March on Washington of hundreds of thousands of people. Medgar Evers was under the ground nearby at Arlington National Cemetery as those who stood on the National Mall spoke up for the rights of African-Americans and assured everyone that nonviolence ultimately would trump violence. It was a triumph of the First Amendment, which protects both the right of free speech and the right of peaceful assembly.

These events of 1963 provide an opportunity to examine our tolerance for violence 50 years later, when it is still all too common for Americans, especially black Americans, to die at the hands of firearms. According to the 2011 Global Study on Homicide conducted by the United Nations, the United States has the highest per-capita firearm homicide rate of any developed country in the world, by far. Yet many of our lawmakers refuse to pass even small changes to gun laws.

Since Byron De La Beckwith killed Medgar Evers in 1963, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died at the hands of guns. Murderers have targeted schools, estranged spouses, rival gang members and presidents, often with guns obtained legally. The threat of gun violence continues to silence, intimidate and terrify people for personal and political reasons, yet we allow guns to remain widely and freely available.

Guns kill people even when there is no clear murderous intent. Children accidentally shoot siblings or friends, or get caught in the crossfire in their neighborhoods. People shoot friends or strangers in moments of anger or unclear thinking, and many Americans -- 20,000-plus in each of the past few years -- turn a gun on themselves.

In the face of this gun violence, legislators seem to prioritize the rights of gun owners over the rights of other citizens to live free from fear and violence. The rights of gun owners and the rights of everyone else need to be brought into better balance. Let's imagine a chorus of voices representing all the people killed by guns and who live in fear of guns -- a chorus so loud that it could drown out the sound of Byron De La Beckwith's rifle.

In 1963, a gun murder galvanized the civil rights movement during a hot summer that ended with Martin Luther King Jr. standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial asking his listeners to meet "physical force with soul force." I challenge our legislators to hear the voices often drowned out by the National Rifle Association and muster the soul force needed to change our culture of gun violence.

opinion_commentary

Jennifer Riddle Harding is an associate professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. (jharding@washjeff.edu).


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