The Power of Forgiveness Should Not Be Confused

06/22/2015 12:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Many Americans, including myself, sat transfixed on Friday watching the bond hearing of Dylann Roof, the accused shooter of last week's massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. As family members of the victims stood up and said they forgave Roof, who appeared via video-conference from jail, they emphasized that hate would not win. The immediate reaction from the public to this act of mercy has been one of universal acclaim for the strength that these family members displayed. But while many have stated that they did the right thing and averted potential divisiveness, some are saying that they are tired of us having to forgive and take the higher moral position when such evil occurs. I received both reactions from my listeners on my syndicated radio talk show, Keepin' It Real, as well as in emails and tweets from folks around the country. Well, let me set the record straight today: forgiveness and a high moral tone does not avert the need of a movement; rather, it raises it to the level where it ought to be.

The movement against racism, and the movement against easy access to guns must be fought by those that take a high moral ground and therefore a high moral tone. A movement should never be based on being threatening physically, or violently. The strength and courage that these brave family members showed at that bond hearing and every other day since this horrific tragedy should not be used to somehow dismiss their determination and will to seek justice and fight on behalf of their loved ones and for the betterment of society. It takes more power to be forgiving in the face of direct wickedness and evil than it does to easily react and match who could be more destructive.

As I visited Charleston last week and assisted members of National Action Network's Charleston chapter who have worked with the now late Rev. (and Senator) Clementa Pinckney and others killed, I sensed not only a high moral tone but a determination among both Blacks and Whites to bring down the confederate flag and continue to fight for stronger gun control measures and increased attention to mental health issues. No one is more vested in seeking justice than the courageous family members of those nine innocent victims who were slaughtered in a place that was their sanctuary. Anyone who thinks that forgiving Dylann Roof is an act of weakness has no clue what forgiveness is all about, nor what kind of inner strength it takes to do such a thing.

In 1989, a 16-year-old teenager named Yusuf Hawkins was shot dead in the neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn after being surrounded by a mob of bat-wielding White youth. That ethnically White community in Bensonhurst protected the killers and hid information. We began marches to protest the killing and to put pressure on the neighborhood to give information (which they ultimately did that led to convictions and long sentences). On the 23rd week of protest in 1991, a young White male stuck his arm out and stabbed a knife right into my chest. As I lay in the hospital not knowing how serious my wound was, I remembered my growth as a student of Dr. King, mentored by those that were senior staff members of his, and I knew that this would be a defining moment in my own self-image, not withstanding what the public image of me was, should or could be. And I decided to forgive my assailant.

When Michael Riccardi was being sentenced for stabbing me, I asked the judge to give him leniency. He was given five to 15 years, and did nine. I visited him in jail -- and that was no easy task. The hardest thing I've done in my life is walk into jail and look into the eyes of the man who not only wanted to kill me, but actually tried to do so. He told me he could not understand how I could visit him and forgive him; I said I did it for myself. If I wanted to be the man, that advocate, that leader that I aspired to be, I couldn't take hatred or revenge with me on my journey.

Yes, racism is real and vile, and many of us are castigated for reminding Americans of this reality, but to forgive proponents of racism while you fight their behavior is not only praiseworthy -- it is necessary. What those family members did in Charleston not only showed their bravery, but it showed an understanding that we must be as Gandhi said: the change we seek.

Forgiveness and a higher moral tone should not suspend a movement, but instead energize it. And these family members should not be considered weak, old school, holy rollers or anything else except what they are: strong, steadfast and heroic. They should be extolled as visionary people that understand that we must rise above storms so you can help those who have been rattled and devastated by the storms.

That is the true power of forgiveness.