On April 16, 1963 a group of prominent white Alabama churchmen wrote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an open letter demanding that he call off demonstrations against segregation in Birmingham. The churchmen ridiculed Dr. King’s efforts by branding the demonstrations “untimely” and “unwise.” King’s first reaction was to shrug off their belittlement as the rantings of yet another pack of do nothing, obstructionists and nay sayers who delight in sitting on the side lines and taking cheap shots at any effort made for change. They, of course, won’t lift a finger to contribute time, energy or their dollars to groups and individuals that are trying to make positive change.

King made an exception and responded to his frozen in the sand critics with his famed Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “The demonstrations seek to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” King went further and said radical action was needed to wake up citizens and involve them in the change fight.

His response spoke to the ages and applies to the Los Angeles Times editorial board.

They blasted the call by the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, the L.A.Civil Rights Assn. and other civil rights leaders for a 40 Hour King Assassination Memorial Moratorium on Killing as “silliness” and a “stunt.” It supposedly sullied the name and legacy of Dr. King. The tip off on the Times misunderstanding, or deliberate distortion, of the goal of the moratorium was its incredibly, sloppy, wrong headed, and idiotic earlier news headline (“City Council rejects ban on homicide”). The Times couldn’t even get the story of what the Council did right. The Council approved the call to end killing for 40 hours (the 40 hours marked the 40 year anniversary of the assassination) as a tribute to King.

King, of course, passionately and eloquently argued in countless speeches, letters, and interviews for non violence and ending killing whether in Vietnam or the streets of America’s cities. In an article published 12 days after his murder, and what stands as his last admonition from the grave, his voice still rang out loudly for an end to killing.

The moratorium in his name was not a silly, utopian, or wasteful call to end homicides. It was simply a challenge to L.A. residents that have seen many neighborhoods in the city torn by murder violence to pay tribute to the man who is one of world history’s foremost and most beloved champions of non-violence. The call during the period of reflection and thought on the meaning of King’s life and death by violence was a call to residents to commit, engage, and dialogue with friends, relatives, and loved ones in the schools, at work and on the streets, about ways to prevent violence in our city.

It was a timely opportunity for citizen and community engagement, even empowerment, in the ongoing and tormenting fight against murder violence. The moratorium was a rare chance for Los Angeles to provide a working example and a model for peace and nonviolence for other cities torn by murder violence. The moratorium showed what could be done when citizens join in the fight to take back their streets.

We talked with many persons old, and especially, young. They, unlike the tin ears and blinded eyes of the naysayers and head shakers on the Times editorial board got the point. They did not ridicule or belittle the moratorium call. They are the ones that are most at risk from violence.

They hardly considered any effort to reduce that risk as silly. They understood that if the moratorium saved even one life during the forty hour observance then the correct word that starts with the letter “s” to describe it is not stunt or silliness but success. This sailed way over the head of the Time’s editors.

Unfortunately, the moratorium did not attain one goal, namely no homicides during the 40 hour period. There were several fatal shootings. But the moratorium did attain the larger goals of calling attention to Dr. King and his struggle for nonviolent solutions to conflicts, and in engaging the community to continue the search for proactive solutions to the murder plague in L.A.
Does this sound like something that’s silly or a stunt?

– Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst and president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable (LAUPR). His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008). LAUPR meets Saturdays, 10a.m. at Lucy Florence Coffeehouse, 3351 W. 43rd St., Leimert Park.