04/04/2011 10:10 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2011

Reflections Along the Moral Highway From Memphis to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C.

April 4 is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tenn. This anniversary occurs against the background of other memorable past and current events: Last week's 40th anniversary of the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus, The National Urban League's Conference at Howard University on "The State of Black America 2011", the anniversary of the Dr.King's major public policy speech, "Time To Break The Silence," opposing the war in Vietnam, the 44th Anniversary of his last public speech, "I've Been To The Mountaintop," and President Barack Obama's commencement of America's third war in an Arab Muslim nation.

The legacy of Dr. King's unwavering commitment to the nonviolent pursuit of justice, racial equality and world peace endures as a moral compass on the road from Memphis to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Indeed, his legacy may be the most important 21st-century moral challenge he has bequeathed to our nation.

In a previous blog, paraphrasing, a book review in the Financial Times, I wrote that violence lays molten lava beneath our society, waiting to erupt. The activist author and teacher, Joseph Marshall, in his book, Street Soldier: One Man's Struggle to Save a Generation, One Life At a Time, says "the essence of violence" is the exercise of power, domination and control.

Presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F, Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy were, like Dr. King, all assassinated by gun violence. While handguns account for only one-third of all firearms owned in the United States, they account for more than two-thirds of all firearm-related deaths each year. A gun in the home is four times more likely to be involved in an unintentional shooting, seven times more likely to be used to commit a criminal assault or homicide, and 11 times more likely to be used to attempt or commit suicide than to be used in self-defense. (A Kellerman, et al. Journal of Trauma, August 1998; Kellerman AL, Lee RK, Mercy JA, et al. "The Epidemiological Basis for the Prevention of Firearm Injuries." Annu.Rev Public Health. 1991; 12:17-40.)

On Thursday night, April 4, 1968, while campaigning for president in Indianapolis, Indiana, during the presidential primaries, Robert Kennedy, (who, in June 1963, had authorized J. Edgar Hoover's FBI to effect "24/7" wiretaps on my home and office telephones and those of Dr. King), received the news of Dr. King's assassination before anyone else did in the predominantly black audience that had assembled to hear him speak.

Standing atop a flatbed truck, he told the crowd:

I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States; we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times...

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 and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Two months later, Robert Kennedy, would be assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

In March of 1971, 13 black Congress people formed the Congressional Black Caucus. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, first chairman of the Caucus, paraphrasing the legendary African-American labor and civil rights leader, referring back to that event, recently said, "Our doctrine for the CBC back in 1971 was the recognition that we as the black members of Congress have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but we do have permanent interests." At the banquet dinner commemorating the inauguration of the CBC, the actor Ossie Davis proclaimed, "It's not the man, it's the plan," suggesting the agenda and political interests of the CBC transcended any permanent allegiance to any particular party or leader.

As mentioned above, this anniversary of Dr. King's assassination follows a national conference, on "The State of Black America 2011." 43 years later, unemployment among African-American men is 16.8% (from 16.2% in February); for black women, down to 12.5% (from 13.0% in February). The unemployment rate for whites was 7.9% (from 8.0% in February) while the Hispanic rate was 11.3% (from 11.6% in February).

Rates of teen unemployment were 21.6% for whites and 42.1% for African-Americans. The rate of overall unemployment for blacks was 15.5%, and 45% among black teenagers.

Incarceration of African Americans is at an all-time high as is the incidence of HIV/AIDS. Former New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, during the course of the Presidential Primary debate at Howard University in June 2007, said, "If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34 there would be an outraged outcry in this country,"

The first African American to be elected president of the United States may also be the first president to be confronted with existential threats to our country and the world peace greater than during the years of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. President Obama, in an instance where there was no perceived threat to the national security of the United States, nevertheless preemptively intervened in Libya for "humanitarian" reasons to prevent a perceived massacre of innocent civilians.

In doing so he said:

It's true that American cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence.

This use of United States military armed force is a nuanced extension of Obama's doctrine of a just war discussed in his acceptance speech at the time a Nobel Peace Prize was being awarded to him.

He said to the Nobel Committee and world notables, who had come to witness the event, that:

Wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, and children scarred.

... [M]eeting these challenges... will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people... A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point... because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. At times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.

April 4, 1967, one year to the date prior to his assassination, Dr. King, speaking at the Riverside Church in NYC, in a major policy speech publicly opposing President Lyndon B. Johnson's continued pursuit and escalation of the war in Vietnam, said:

Men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy; especially in time of war... I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart... I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.

In speaking about the burden of moral responsibility he felt, as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King commented, "I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission -- a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for 'the brotherhood of man.'"

Dr. King, a realist and prescient of the financial burden now confronting President Obama as he pursues war as an instrument of his administration's foreign policy, noted that "America would never invest the funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube." He said he was compelled to see the war as "an enemy of the poor."

"Somehow this madness must cease." Quoting President Kennedy, he continued, "'Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable'... We still have a choice today: non-violent coexistence or violent co-annihilation."

In his final words to us, on that raining stormy night before the next day when he would be shot by James Earl Ray, he said to us:

"We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop... Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has it place. But, I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But, I want you know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."