As I write this, it is the day after.
The day after America pretends that Martin Luther King Jr. was universally beloved for his courageous stance against racism and bigotry. The day after everyone and their mama claims to have marched with him. The day after well-meaning service projects trivialize the depth of King’s commitment to agitating for justice.
Normally, I spend this day trying not to be annoyed that our annual Kumbaya moment has come and gone without any real progress on the injustices King fought so hard to change. Today, however, I am not annoyed. I’m deeply troubled.
Because this year, on MLK Day, a gun-rights rally took place in Virginia. The kind featuring thousands of mostly white people, many of them carrying guns, some allegedly from right-wing hate groups, and all united in their fervent desire to carry weapons that kill.
I support the right to keep and bear arms. But the spectacle of a reported 22,000 people — many of them white and armed — converging on the Virginia Capitol was reminiscent of a gigantic lynch mob, and it was chilling that such a gathering took place on the only national holiday honoring a black man.
Their stated purpose was not to disrespect the memory of King, though the Virginian custom of holding “Lobby Day” at the capital on King’s birthday does just that. Instead, gun advocates said they were there to oppose new legislation that could restrict access to firearms in Virginia.
Last week, Virginia’s Senate approved gun control measures including background checks for private firearm transfers, limiting gun purchases to one handgun a month, and allowing municipalities to ban firearms in public during a permitted event. If the Virginia House of Delegates approves the legislation, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to sign it into law.
Though Democrats argue that it is necessary to pass gun control legislation after a mass shooting took place in the resort town of Virginia Beach last year, gun advocates, led by an organization called the Virginia Citizens Defense League, called for protests.
But the protests looked to be about much more than just guns. They looked to be about right-wing groups using the protests to promote their racist agendas. That was what Northam feared when he banned guns on the Capitol grounds during the event. According to law enforcement officials, he may have had reason to be concerned. Three suspected white supremacists arrested by the FBI prior to the rally had discussed opening fire at the event from different positions to create chaos, law enforcement officials said.
Perhaps as troubling was language around the protest that likened gun control to racial oppression. One sign read, “Gun control is Jim Crow,” a reference to the racist systems put in place to subjugate blacks after the Civil War.
Oh, really? Let me know when someone lynches a white gun owner for trying to buy an extra gun. Give me a ring when a white gun owner is dismembered for refusing a background check. Tell me about it when a white gun owner is beaten or mutilated for bringing a gun to the county fair.
Those are the kinds of things that happened to blacks who stood up against Jim Crow. Only when the enforcement of gun legislation is accompanied by state-sanctioned violence that goes unpunished, or sentences gun owners to everlasting poverty, or robs generations of gun owners of their property, then perhaps it can be compared to Jim Crow.
Until then, let’s acknowledge that limiting gun purchases to one a month is not slavery.
Slavery took away people’s freedom and violated their bodies and minds in unspeakable ways. It denied their very humanity. Jim Crow did virtually the same thing, creating legislative shackles that relegated black people to the back of the bus, the ghettos of America, and the inside of jail cells.
Tying a false enslavement narrative to a holiday commemorating a man who fought against bigotry is the kind of insult that creates tension. But even in the face of such callous misuse of the black experience, I am drawn back to the words of King, who said in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that tension is necessary for growth.