A look at King’s legacy and how we can apply it to today’s issues.
In His Own Words
“I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience . . .”
“I fear that there is a dearth of vision in our government, a lack of a sense of history and genuine morality . . .”
“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity . . .”
— from The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
What Would King Do?
We can only speculate about what Martin Luther King, Jr., would say and do about the issues that face us today. Since we are still struggling with many of the issues that were relevant during his lifetime, our consideration of what he had to say about those issues can suggest possible courses of action.
There are many issues that King might speak to today: abortion, the rollback of affirmative action, police brutality, the continually growing income gap (both within the nation and between nations), AIDS, welfare reform, voting inequities, private school vouchers, and the digital divide. From his writings on similar issues, we can surmise what he might say and do about these pressing issues.
Many of these issues fit under the larger heading of “inequities that arise as a result of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.” Notable examples include the income and digital divides, welfare reform, voting inequities, police brutality, and, to a certain extent, AIDS — or rather, the way the AIDS epidemic is being handled both here and abroad. What did, or would King have to say?
In I May Not Get There With You, Michael Eric Dyson addresses many of these issues. We know, he says, that King advocated a redistribution of wealth in this country. He would have considered it immoral for some people to have billions of dollars, while others — through no fault of their own — can’t afford to feed their kids or find a place to live. As King said in Memphis less than a month before he died, “It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.”
Wealth and Opportunity
Perhaps King would have found a way to persuade the private sector’s “haves” to funnel a percentage of their wealth into charities that deal with pressing social issues, but indications are that he felt that government should take on this role. After all, he reasoned, the economic structure of this country was built on slave labor and the exploitation of the working-class poor of every race. Since the country is seemingly awash in prosperity, King probably would feel that a Poor People’s Campaign for jobs and income, to dramatize the plight of the still-invisible poor, is still in order.
“Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here,” King wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages . . .” He endorsed what we know as affirmative action, arguing that it “is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.” He questioned how the Negro “could be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him now to compete on a just and equal basis.”
Perhaps King would have favored some kind of welfare reform. After all, it is true that the system, as it is, fosters an unhealthy dependency. But King would have objected to the stereotype of “welfare queens.” He would have announced long and hard that the majority of welfare recipients are white and always have been. He might have objected to imposing an arbitrary timeframe for withdrawing support, only to create more working poor.
He might have also gone so far as to advocate reparations. In Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote, “No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes.
“The program should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would surely be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest.”
King would probably advocate neighborhood redevelopment — as he did in Chicago — with area residents determining how resources should be spent in their neighborhood. He would urge avoidance of the mistakes of Urban Renewal and the rapaciousness of white gentrification of black inner city neighborhoods.
If the issues of the inner city are not addressed, King said, expect violence. “Riots grow out of intolerable conditions. Violent revolts are generated by revolting conditions and there is nothing more dangerous than to build a society of people who feel that they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to lose . . . America’s horror was only expressed when the aggression turned outward . . .”
Police brutality is as much a pressing issue in the black community as it has always been. Regardless of how much money he may have, how nice a house he may own, how prestigious a position he may hold, a black man in America knows the hazards of “driving while black” — racial profiling. Even those whose status and fame you’d think would put them above such treatment are vulnerable.
From racial profiling, to beating and killing young men while placing them under arrest, to the high percentage (relative to the population) of black males in prison and on death row — the American criminal justice system seems to target poor black men in particular. “I had seen,” King wrote in his autobiography, “police brutality with my own eyes, and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts.” Only citizen review boards — made up of the people whose communities are affected — may be able to stem the tide of young blacks and Latinos who are being unjustly funneled into prisons.
Just as King advocated a redistribution of wealth within the U.S., he endorsed a redistribution of wealth among nations. Why should Africa have to repay loans after being exploited for centuries? Why should Africans die at horrifyingly high rates from AIDS just because U.S. pharmaceutical companies want to turn a profit on misery?
Through the international lens he increasingly wore after his trip to Africa in 1957 and his trip to India in 1959, King increasingly saw that poverty was a direct result of colonialism. He was outraged that wealthy nations not only allowed misery to persist in these countries, but actually benefited from the misery. King said that the U.S. had a moral obligation to share its wealth with the poorer nations of the world.
To Have and Have Not
In fact, King today might frame most of the issues mentioned in terms of “haves” and “have-nots.” Even on the issue of abortion, I think — and I know I’m going out on a limb here — that Dr. King would probably argue for a woman’s right to choose. Although he was not the most enlightened person when it came to women, he would have tried to address the causes that make abortion so rampant.
As the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he counseled unwed mothers and their families. “It was always a frustrating experience,” he said about the problem. “I feel so helpless.” He said that he never counseled a forced marriage. When the opportunity arose, King joined a committee of the Planned Parenthood Federation, which disseminated literature on unwanted pregnancies.
In a 1966 interview with Hugh Downs on NBC’s Today Show, King discussed what Downs referred to as “loose sex relations and problems of the quite young” with a great deal of tolerance. King said that the church should be at the forefront of sex education, and that it must “seek to get at the causal basis and work to remove these causes and deal with the psychological problems . . . rather than making a general condemnation and be concerned about the causal basis.”
What is alarming is that, often, antiabortion spokespersons use Dr. King’s example of non-violent resistance to fuel their own arguments of moral certitude.
As Dyson writes: “There is a huge difference between the civil rights movement and the antiabortion rescue movement. Where the civil rights movement struggled to gain constitutional rights that were being unjustly denied to millions of black citizens, the antiabortion rescue movement aims to destroy the constitutional rights of women to exercise reproductive choice.”
Dyson goes on to say that ” . . . the moral myopia of making one’s position on abortion the litmus test of authentic Christian identity — while slighting the crucial social and moral issues that afflict the poor and oppressed — severely limits the possibility of forging connections among a broad range of believers, much less between all citizens of conscience.”
While King made no public statement that we know of either supporting or condemning a woman’s right to choose, we may extrapolate from this glimpse of his thinking about the government stepping in on a personal issue of morality. When asked about the Supreme Court ruling outlawing prayer in schools, King endorsed the court’s ruling, saying that, “In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.”
It was Dr. King’s emphasis on the interrelatedness of racial and economic justice, extended to include the whole world, that got him killed. He wanted radical changes from the status quo, changes that would equalize the relationships between races, classes, and nations. In the final analysis, what defined his dream is what got him killed.
A Closer Look
We could go on for another hundred thousand words, looking at major issues of the day that King would have addressed. In fact, dozens of books have been written about him in the context of his own time. If Dr. King’s legacy is to become more than a two-dimensional symbol of a colorless society in our collective mind, we must look beyond the phrases of the “I Have a Dream” speech that speak of the idyllic world he envisioned briefly in 1963.
Indeed, King himself said shortly after delivering that speech that the dream had turned into a nightmare. Those of us who wish to extend his dream and flesh out the real Martin Luther King, Jr., should read his other works, especially those written after 1965, and look around our own communities to see how we can make a difference.
Assignment: I May Not Get There With You
In The Negro and the Constitution, King wrote, “Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar.”
There are those who would argue that despite Colin Powell’s appointment as Secretary of State, African Americans still face racism in every facet of American life. The fact that we have come a long way does not negate that. For the next week, look through your local dailies and black community newspapers, national newsmagazines, and relevant Web sites for articles on racism.
What progress have we made in the years since King’s murder? What progress still needs to be made?