On King and Living a Life Beyond Fear

Forty-three years to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s slaying, those who fight for social and economic justice still face real threats to their safety and rights, says the NAACP's president.

Seventeen years ago, I was an organizer in Mississippi. And I was scared.

We were planning a march to stop the governor from turning a public, historically black university, Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, into a prison. Byron De La Beckwith had just been put in prison for killing Medgar Evers — the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi. It was 30 years too late, but the Ku Klux Klan was still enraged that one of its own had been sentenced to prison for killing a black man. The group threatened to kill me or one of the other organizers in retaliation.

As the march approached, the threats became more numerous and specific. One night, in the cauldron of that long moment, I remembered something my parents often told me as a child: “We all get scared. The question, son, is how you respond. If you act in response to your fears, you are a coward. If you act in spite of your fears, you are courageous.”

I took their words to heart. I got refocused, and I felt re-energized. The march went forward — much larger than planned. And ultimately, the school was saved.

Many of us go through life believing America’s age of martyrs ended when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The reality, as the shooting massacre that killed U.S. District Judge John Roll and injured Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords reminded us, is that there is a reason we still take the threat of politically motivated violence seriously. The pace may have slowed, but assassinations still happen in America.

On the 17th of January, a little more than a week after the tragedies in Arizona, police in Spokane, Wash., stopped a similarly heinous plot to kill those marching with the NAACP to commemorate the legacy of Dr. King.

As police would later determine, 36-year-old Kevin Harpham allegedly dropped a backpack on a bench in downtown Spokane. The pack contained a sophisticated homemade bomb filled with shrapnel dipped in cyanide. It was set to explode just as hundreds of marchers would be going by. Thankfully, a sharp-eyed cleanup-crew member spotted the bomb just moments before the crowds reached the bench, and a bomb squad acted quickly to defuse it.

The attempted bombing was one of several threats targeted at civil and human rights activists in the past 12 months. These include dozens of threats received by NAACP staff and volunteers in the days after we called on the Tea Party to police racist rhetoric at its rallies. In one such incident, a caller threatened to make “the streets run red” with our blood. It came less than a month after police shot an armor-clad gunman on his way to attack the ACLU and the Tides Foundation.

At bottom, while the location and the tactics change, the intent of these threats and attacks is always the same: to intimidate, to quell, to silence, to scare.