Updated: May 10
Our nation marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, just days after a group of teenagers from Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, organized hundreds of thousands of people in the March 24 “March for Our Lives” nationwide protests against gun violence.
On February 14, a gunman killed 17 people and injured another 17 at Marjory Stoneman. Nikolas Cruz, 19, has been charged. Within 6 weeks, students from Stoneman organized hundreds of thousands of people at more than 800 nationwide protests, including the Washington, DC, march that brought together 800,000. Statewide, thousands marched in Asheville, Raleigh, Wilmington and elsewhere.
The “March for Our Lives” movement faces gun control opponents, particularly the National Rifle Association. Conservatives in the news media and social media trolls have ridiculed the massacre survivors. Stoneman student Kyle Kashuv has emerged as an outspoken pro-Second Amendment advocate.
But it’s easy to lay out dichotomies, color the nation in black and white along battle lines. That is the work of the nefarious Russian social media bots that spewed hate-filled messages bent on dividing Americans prior to the 2016 elections. They built on the worst in us, and America took the bait.
It’s harder to seek and act on opportunities for change by using King’s principles. To make a difference, we don’t have to hate the people with whom we disagree. King describes this and other strategies for nonviolent resistance in his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom.”
1) Resist evil without resorting to violence. 2) Seek the “friendship and understanding” of the opponent, not to humiliate him. 3) Evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed. 4) Suffer without retaliation as suffering itself can be redemptive. 5) Refuse to shoot the opponent; refuse to hate him. 6) Have a “deep faith in the future.”
King, only 29 when he wrote “Stride,” had that faith in the future. As in King’s time, the Stoneman Douglas teenagers are building a movement on a shared cry for justice and outrage at a political system that has ignored them. To their credit, they haven’t aligned themselves with a particular political party. Instead, they call for Republicans and Democrats to come together: “We demand morally just leaders to rise up from both parties in order to ensure public safety.” To back that up, like King, they have made voter registration and voting one of the cornerstones of their movement for change. At “March for Our Lives” rallies, volunteers worked the crowds, registering young and old to vote.
The students also have sponsored or have planned “Town Hall for Our Lives” with candidates in cities and towns statewide, including Wilmington, Hickory, Greensboro, and Raleigh. While thousands of North Carolina students have walked out of class, marched, and organized to demand tighter gun control laws, Republican legislators are unlikely to respond to the students’ call for change. To the contrary, they are more likely to loosen state gun laws. The “March for Our Lives” movement comes at a time in our state’s history when we have a Republican-held Legislature with a super majority holding enough votes to overrule Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
But this could change. In past elections, where district lines have been drawn to heavily favor one party, the other party has failed to put forth a candidate. According to an analysis by the News and Observer, the 2016 general election included 73 districts in which just one of the major parties fielded a candidate. Republicans had no candidate in 30 House races and four Senate races; Democrats didn’t have a candidate in 28 House races and 11 Senate races. This year, both parties heavily recruited candidates. Some districts have more than one candidate from a particular party on the ballot.
North Carolina holds primary elections May 8. For the first time in recent memory, Democrats and Republicans have filed to run for nearly all 170 state legislative seats. The 13 U.S. representatives from the state have filed for re-election. All of them have at least one opponent.
“March for Our Lives” seeks to get younger voters to register and vote. There is tremendous opportunity for this generation to flex their muscles at the polls. This year, millennials will pass baby boomers as the largest generation of Americans eligible to vote, making up 34 percent of the voter-eligible population. Their challenge is to get these voters to the polls: Young voters historically vote at lower rates.
But the angst of the young, like King and the Stoneman students, can fuel important social and political change. Now is the time for them, and for the rest of the state and nation, to seize this moment.
The students also have hope—that their movement will make a difference. As history has shown, seizing power requires shrewd tactics fueled by passion and the persistence to see the fight through in the long term. These kids have their whole lives. As King wrote, “The universe is on the side of justice.”