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John Eggers: What can we learn from Dr. King?

Three significant people were lost in 1968 and their last names all begin with the letter “K.” Can you guess who they are?

One you would probably never guess. It was Helen Keller. We also lost Robert Kennedy and the third is someone most everyone would know — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Where were you when Dr. King was shot? Some of you may remember. More than half the people in the U.S. today were not yet born. It happened on Thursday, April 4, 1968. I had just married my wife in March and in April, I was student teaching at Kennedy High School in Bloomington, Minn. The shot that killed him happened at 6:01 p.m. when we were all sitting down to eat.

How did his death impact our lives? My wife and I had already signed a contract to teach in the inner city of Camden, N.J. We lived in a row house in North Camden. The large junior high school where I taught was across the street.

Martin Luther King’s birthday evokes many memories of those days in Camden. Since King’s legacy was fresh in the minds of the people, I could not help but learn up close what he meant to them. It is from that experience that I learned about the teachings of King and those teachings have remained with me all these years.

King taught us that nonviolence is the way to true peace. As we know, he used nonviolence to win civil rights legislation and it worked.

I’m sure it frightens and alarms many of you as it does my wife and me that even after a classroom of kids were slaughtered in Newtown, Conn., we have not done virtually nothing to reduce gun violence in the United States. Zero. Zip. Nada.

As of Dec. 13, the “Stop Handgun Violence” billboard on the Massachusetts Turnpike has been counting how many Americans have died from gun violence since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The billboard, sponsored by the nonprofit group of the same name, estimates that more than 32,000 Americans have died in gun-related incidents in the months since Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults with a semiautomatic rifle.

If King were alive today, he would be holding sit-ins, leading rallies and marching on Washington until something was done. He would not tolerate the murdering of children.

King taught us if you want to do something that profoundly makes a difference in the lives of others, it takes relentless courage. King said “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” We all need to try standing taller.

On the day that King was killed, Robert Kennedy, who was running for president, had to give a speech to people in Indianapolis. These people had been waiting hours to hear him and they were not aware of King’s death. Most of the people were African-American.

When Kennedy announced to them what had happened, there was screaming and wailing. After the audience was quiet, Kennedy then delivered one of his most memorable speeches. He said, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black”.

This is precisely what King advocated during his lifetime. We are a compassionate and caring people. We do what we can for people who suffer. But we also are a divided people in some ways and this divisiveness keeps us from helping our neighbors. King would say. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

King, of course, was a religious man. He was a Baptist preacher who often quoted lessons from the Gospel in his speeches regardless if he were in church or in a community center. His mentor was Jesus Christ. He talked about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, love and, most of all, keeping the faith and loving God above everything else.

There are at this time a total of 60 countries in the world at war and 513 militia-guerrilla groups involved in conflict. Bullets and bombs are not working to bring about peace. They never have and they never will.

One could say that King’s teachings have not had much of an impact on global conflict. Look at the atrocities that are occurring worldwide. It’s hard to keep the faith when young children have little to eat, when women are subjected to a host of injustices and when men, at an early age, are given weapons to help solve their problems.

King taught us that, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

How do we get that message across the globe? We start in our own communities whether they be in a small village in Guatemala, a big city in Georgia or a hut in Ghana and let the good news spread.

It’s definitely not an easy world to live in although I do think it is a better world than on that day in 1968 when King was killed. It’s important that we keep the faith and in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King again, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” If we can learn this from King, we have learned a lot.

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.