R. Reese, Cal Poly Pomona, Political Science, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, A15, January 8, 2006


MLK Jr., Tookie Williams: Kindred Spirits?

I learned of the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams while I was giving a series of lectures in Shanghai, China.   I was struck by the many ironies surrounding this controversial death penalty case.   The fact that I was in China learning of the execution of a man in the U.S. was the first irony that caught my attention.   I asked a Chinese university student whether he supported the death penalty.   He said, "Yes, but I am from China."   In other words, China has embraced a different perspective on human rights than the U.S., which is the primary advocate of human rights worldwide.   Indeed, the U.S. has consistently accused China of embracing barbaric punishment policies. The second of many ironies was that an elitist foreign-born governor who made his fortune by promoting violence in his films denied Williams clemency.   Perhaps the most provocative irony, however, that occupied my mind while I thought of the execution of Williams was the similarities he shared with Martin Luther King Jr.   For those who think it is blasphemous to use the self-proclaimed co-founder of the Crips and King in the same sentence, bear with me.

Irrespective of his guilt or innocence involving the crimes for which he was executed, Tookie was once a bad person--a cancer to his community.   It was not his past that links him to King but his redemption.

In 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama for marching and protesting the city's segregationist laws.   In his jail cell, he composed the most eloquent and insightful commentary on the injustices embedded in American society that has ever been written.   In essence, King's famous letter stated that America had embraced noble principles but ignoble practices. Throughout this letter King urged America to denounce violence and embrace compassion.   Decades later, in his cell in San Quentin, Williams created a series of children's books entitled, "Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence." Indeed, from their cells, King and Williams embraced the same theme.   Despite Williams' violent past, he came to embrace King's philosophy of agape love.

Both Williams and King were celebrated internationally and vilified in their own country.

Although Williams had many supporters in the U.S., there were many more who thought he deserved the death penalty.   During the time of King's murder, many in America could care less about his embrace of peace.   FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover, and many like-minded Americans saw King as a race agitator. Decades removed from the civil rights movement, King has become America's icon for peace.

King and Williams were both worthy of being considered for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Tookie was nominated for the prestigious award on multiple occasions. King won the Nobel in 1964.    Moreover, King embraced peace in the midst of the violent and senseless Vietnam War. Williams embraced peace in the midst of the violent and senseless Iraq War.

In his historic March on Washington s peech in 1963, King stated: " there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred." If King were alive, he would have forgiven his brother Tookie for his wrongful deeds.   He would have endorsed clemency for him.   For those, including Governor Schwarzenegger, who advocated the death penalty for Williams, King would have urged you not to "drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred."

In a farewell recording, which was played at his funeral, Williams encouraged mourners to spread his message to their loved ones.   He said, "Teach them how to avoid our destructive footsteps. Teach them to strive for higher education. Teach them to promote peace and teach them to focus on rebuilding the neighborhoods that you, others and I helped to destroy."   In his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway, King stated, "After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time--the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression."

King stood for peace and was killed.   Williams stood for peace and was killed. America must realize that violence begets violence.   We live in a society that gives us contradictory messages about violence.   We embrace it in some forms, like the Governor and the President, and despise it in other forms.   As Americans we must reconcile our contradictory stances on violence.

We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day every January.   For many of us, it is simply a day off of work or a day off from school.   Few of us take time out to contemplate or internalize King's legacy.   He energetically embraced forgiveness, love, compassion, and empathy.   In order for America to right our many wrongs, we must fully embrace King's legacy.

You do not have to participate in a formal King Day celebration to deeply reflect on your role in making America more tolerant, peaceful, and harmonious.   Whether it is speaking out against racial injustice, confronting a bully at school or in the workplace, or denouncing gang violence, it is reflective of King's mission. Most great figures in world history are remembered for their compassion.   King shared this trait with the Ghandis, Mother Teresas, and Mandelas of the world.   He also shared this trait with the late Stanley "Tookie" Williams.