Today, most Americans celebrated the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., founding president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the distinguished nonviolent direct action civil rights organization. I came to adulthood under the tutelage of the giants of the SCLC, icons from the civil rights movement such as Dr. King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Heights and Joseph Lowery. Therefore, no one who knows me should be surprised to know that I am top-of-the-line livid that a New York man allegedly threatened the life of former president Donald Trump.
While I hate to admit it, I have given myself permission to not like Mr. Trump. He is, from my viewpoint, not a particularly lovely person. Nevertheless, I do not wish him harm, nor do I want anyone else to come to the un-American conclusion that violence is somehow the answer to the challenges facing our democracy and our nation. In fact, unlike a growing number of Americans, I do not accept violence as a remedy for anything except life-preserving self-defense.
Threats to harm or kill other Americans are the verbal ventures of a conversational cripple. Dr. King believed this to his core, which is why he chose another path, stating, “We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”
When I apply Dr. King’s words to our nation’s current social and political condition, I cannot help but come to any other conclusion: when this poisonous political period ends, it will become so because concord is far more dynamic than discord, harmony is more desirable than histrionics, and tolerance towers over temper tantrums.
Words matter. I — and I hope two individuals currently sitting in federal prison for firebombing my office and threatening my life — understand their power firsthand. They can harm or they can heal; they can insult, or they can inspire; and they can give oxygen to fanaticism and fascism — or they can communicate and rejuvenate our devotion to democracy.
Now for the political component to this missive. I do not know the political affiliation of the man who threatened the former president, but to anyone who feels compelled to terrify or threaten fellow Americans with violence, there is no place for you in the Democratic Party today. We cannot allow Democrats to sink to these gutter-level words and actions, as it only opens the door to the predictable proclamation, “Both sides do it,” despite evidence that domestic terror is an asymmetric issue.
Finally, I reject — and request that others do the same — the tribalistic notion that right and wrong are interchangeable, depending on the position my side embraces. No matter the politics of the perpetrator, Americans should always come together to condemn political violence of any nature. That is what makes America truly exceptional: that we can peacefully settle our difference of opinion through robust debate and free and fair elections.
As our political tumult grows more intense and nasty, our adversaries around the world are most assuredly whispering, “America, your days as the great, dominant democracy are numbered.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. and other popes of peace and nonviolence view us from the hallowed halls of eternity, may our actions be worthy of their sacrifices, and may we refuse to squander the peaceful, even if imperfect, self-government they sought to bequeath to us and our progeny.
Emanuel Cleaver II represents Missouri’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.