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Norma Cook Everist Headshot

He Said, "I Ought to Kill You"

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The morning after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed forty-five years ago, I walked around the block as usual to the home of my friend, Linda. Our neighborhood group of young moms gathered each Friday morning. We cherished our time together. We knew this morning was different, dreadfully different, but we dared to gather together anyway.

You see, just the summer before our neighborhood in a major metropolitan city had been engulfed in flames in what the news reports then and history today calls, "The Riots." They were really the rebellions after decades of racial and economic discrimination. Throughout the 1960's we had been working together, marching, organizing, and making progress. But now our leader was dead. He was gone and the temptation was to scatter into our isolated enclaves, or hide behind locked doors. Actually it might have been wiser for me, a white woman living in an inner city, "changing" neighborhood, to not go out that morning.

A friend of Linda's was at the house, a man I knew. He was angry. We all were. He said to me, "Norma I ought to kill you." I replied, "Yes, you should." We both knew he wouldn't. But to say it, to acknowledge it, was essential in that moment. I stayed among my African-American friends and all of us talked.

Later that day, it did become too dangerous to go outside. The streets became eerily silent. But Linda sent her 12-year-old daughter across the back way to our house with words of comfort written with crayon on a sheet of construction paper which we placed on our refrigerator. (The words there for a long time.) And then the fires came again, all over the country; 110 cities experienced "civil unrest" and 60, including ours, had huge riots. The fires next time were now.

And today, forty-five years later, where are we? For one thing, we have vastly more guns, in every neighborhood. (As devastating and destructive as the riots were, deaths in cities were listed as 6 or a dozen.) Today fear of the neighbors has intensified. Locked doors are everywhere and the only money some are willing to allocate for schools in need of teachers and resources is for more guns. What we really need to is to dare to walk around the neighborhood together, unafraid, and unwilling to kill.

On the forty-fifth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Connecticut's governor signed into law sweeping new restrictions on weapons and ammunition magazines. The state passed the gun laws in a non-partisan, comprehensive way. Maryland's General Assembly on Thursday passed measures on gun control which will become among the strictest in the nation. The bill was sent to the governor to sign.

On the anniversary of King's death minimum wage earners in fast food restaurants dared to go outside in New York City with picket signs like those of Memphis sanitation workers when Martin Lutheran King Jr. was killed: "I am a Man," "I am a Woman." If you compare the minimum wage in 1968 to today, workers are making far less. They risk their jobs because they are non-union. They ask for the right to organize without retaliation or intimidation. The gap between rich and poor grows and the rights of people to strike have plummeted. We need to be able to go outside and walk together for fairness and justice.

The mindset of many Americans is to be afraid of the black man, but actually White Supremacy groups in the United States have multiplied in recent years. They are in the news due to murders of officials in Colorado and Texas. The assistant U.S. attorney in Houston who was to head the prosecution of a 2012 case involving 34 members of the Aryan brotherhood of Texas has stepped aside citing security concerns. The Southern Poverty Law Center states that there are 1007 active hate groups in the U.S. The respected Center provides not only research but also resources such as "Teaching Tolerance."

We dared to walk outside that Friday morning forty five years ago in the quiet before the fires that we feared would come and did. Today feels eerily similar. So what do we do? It is not yet too late to call a Senator, call a Representative. In this killing culture we must pass tighter federal gun laws. It is not too late to reverse the trend of holding back fair wages for working people.

The issues are not easy. Add in North Korea, Syria. . . All reasons to hide behind locked doors and arm ourselves--to death, or to dare to face each other and say, "We won't kill each other." We cannot.