In the days leading up to last Monday, I had numerous friends and family members from other parts of the country reaching out to me to ask where I would be on Jan. 20.
The impending gun-rights rally obviously garnered a great deal of attention, both for its initial purposes and the worries and warnings that it all could go horribly wrong. Fortunately, those predictions didn’t come true.
When I got those questions, I simply said that I would be continuing my annual tradition of covering the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Youth Day Community Breakfast at Powhatan High School. As an important community event attended by hundreds of local residents and actually taking place in Powhatan, that is where I needed to be.
However, I also was aware of how important this issue is to many Powhatan residents, some of whom I knew would be attending the rally downtown. So I stayed up with the news coverage and reached out on Facebook to those who were attending to ask them to share their photos and experiences. You can read about that in more detail on A1.
At the end of that day, after the breakfast program had wrapped up another year successfully and the fears surrounding the rally – many would say hype – didn’t come to fruition, I couldn’t help but think of it all in the context of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In Powhatan, kudos are definitely merited for the organizers of the youth day breakfast – especially co-chairs Shirley Goins and April Gray – and all of the youth and mentors who worked so hard to make it a special day.
Whether it was the student performances, the mentors and mentees working together to honor local youth and adults, the great breakfast, or the volunteers who made it all come together, the morning at the high school was delightful.
The PHS Diverse Hands at Work Club put together several skits that admirably embraced the theme of this year’s event, “Peace Begins with Me.” It tackled the issues of prejudice because of race, economic status, and physical disability in a relevant and approachable way.
There were outstanding musical performances by the Little Zion Baptist Church Youth Combined Chorus, PHS One Voice, PHS Jazz Band and the Powhatan Middle School String Ensemble.
Because of generous donations from the community, the committee was able to give either scholarships or some funds to all 18 of the students who applied for the awards, which is great positive reinforcement.
It was a day that celebrated our local youth along with the legacy of Dr. King in an admirable way.
Then I thought about the rally downtown. I am not an expert on gun control laws, and I especially would not pretend that I could say without a shadow of a doubt how Dr. King would have felt about it.
Toward the end of his life, Dr. King was a proponent of nonviolence. Different articles I have read took opposing stances on his ownership or attempted ownership of a gun and his decisions about whether to allow armed men to protect him. Regardless, it is obvious that part of his personal journey was deciding how he felt about them, even if only for personal protection.
Several stories I read talked about him owning a number of firearms at one time and even applying for a concealed carry permit in Alabama in the mid-1950s shortly after his home was bombed on Jan. 30, 1956. Despite the obvious danger to his life, white authorities at the time had discretion over issuing him the permit and denied his application. Other articles say that while he did apply for the permit at the urging of family and friends, he later changed his mind.
So when it comes to the issue of gun control and Dr. King, especially when taking the argument out of the context of the times in which he lived and how his views changed throughout his life, the best thought I could come up with my basic knowledge was “it’s complicated.”
But when it comes to the way most protestors reportedly behaved at the rally, it feels like he might have approved. The fact that, from beginning to end, last Monday’s rally was nonviolent is absolutely a triumph for our region and in line with Dr. King’s call for advocating for nonviolent direct action to effect social change.
There is no telling how many firearms of all shapes and sizes were situated within a pretty small amount of real estate downtown last Monday. The Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted authorities as saying the rally had an estimated 22,000 people in attendance, about 16,000 of whom opted to stay outside the perimeter set up by authorities to screen protestors before they entered the area around the Virginia Capitol. While I am sure not all of those who stayed outside the gate were armed, I saw photos of some people who were carrying more than enough guns to make up for some of those without.
And yet, not a single shot was fired. Only one person was arrested, and that was for wearing a mask. No reports of white supremacist activity have come out of the event. Both from news accounts and in speaking with Powhatan residents about what they observed, people of different ethnicities and sexual orientations joined together in protest without incident.
I hope people remember that solidarity and commitment to nonviolence as we move forward since the issue of gun rights in Virginia is obviously not over. Even as I wrote this on Jan. 22, the Virginia Senate approved a “red flag law” that would allow for the removal of guns through a legal warrant from a person deemed a “substantial risk of injury to himself or others.” I know many in Powhatan oppose this and other bills being considered.
Given the subject of this column, I thought this was an appropriate way to end it: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.