As America and the world celebrate the late Martin Luther King Jr. on his federal holiday, Monday, January 17, two days after his actual birthday, many will reflect on the life, times, and legacy of the greatest name, orator, mobilizer and advocate of the Civil Rights Movement.
On MLK Day, there will be news stories generated and special events commemorating King’s powerful speeches to uplift the underserved, the hundreds of marches and protests he led in the face of hatred and white supremacy and the relentless search for freedom and justice for African Americans, all rooted in King’s philosophical belief of nonviolence.
Yet, for many people, MLK Day will be a time to discuss how far Black people in America have come since King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, after standing at the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement since 1955. African Americans have made significant gains because of King’s indelible fingerprints on the Civil Rights Movement. Still, in many instances, Black people today face some of the same issues of yesteryear.
On any given day, news stories are focused on national and state legislators maneuvering to strip voting rights and power from Black and Brown people; deadly incidents of police brutality against Black people and widening gaps for Black Americans to attain quality education, fair housing and equitable employment opportunities. As the old adage goes, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
In 2022, America is at another racial crossroads, while many ask the hypothetical question: What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say and do if he were alive?
No one can accurately say how impactful King would be in addressing many of today’s hot-button issues. However, a cursory look at his civil rights’ track record lends insight to what King would say and do if he were alive.
Many of King’s actions in the Civil Rights Movement led to watershed moments of change for Black people, including the one-year-15-day Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955 to 1956), the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963) and the Selma to Montgomery March (1965). In conjunction with other civil rights contemporaries, King led vigorous fights to bring about landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resistance to racial bigotry in America.
If King were alive today, it’s believed he would be appalled, but not totally surprised, at the elevated level of police brutality against Black people that far too often ends in death. It’s believed he would be at the forefront of organizing and facilitating peaceful protests and marches against police brutality while working with local and federal legislative bodies and other organizations to eradicate such actions.
If King were alive, he would have been amazed at the national and international protests that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer with three others looking on. Witnessing the guilty verdict and sentencing of the former officer, while the other three face federal civil rights violations charges on January 20, 2022, in Minneapolis, would be foreign to King as such murder trials and guilty outcomes of white people were uncommon in the Jim Crow era of systemic racism where King pushed for justice for Black people.
It’s difficult to believe King would approve of the violence, looting and burning of businesses that happened during some protests, although not linked to actions by the organizers. After all, King’s philosophy for fighting injustices was rooted in religion, nonviolent tactics, ongoing dialogues and building coalitions.
Many believe King may not have embraced much of the ideology of Black Lives Matter (BLM), probably wondering why Blacks are killing each other at rates much higher than other ethnicities if Black lives mattered so much to this organization. Yet, he would be astonished by how the organization has morphed into the world’s biggest and most influential movement for the liberation, justice and rights of Black people. And it’s not clear if King would have liked the word “Black” in Black Lives Matter. Would he have preferred “All Lives Matter?”
Nonetheless, King may have been proud that three Black women who founded the powerful BLM — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi — all in their late 20s to early 30s when they spurred the movement in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in 2013. King was 28 when he, in conjunction with others, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Yet, if King were living, he could learn valuable lessons from Garza, Cullors and Tometi about the power of social media platforms becoming indispensable tools in today’s messaging, fights and movements for civil rights and justice.
If King were living in 2022, he would have witnessed two years of the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic disproportionally impacting poor Black communities across America. While the lack of access to quality health care in Black communities is not new, it’s believed that King would address and passionately push for better health care legislation and services in Black and Brown communities, perhaps motivated by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer assembling the Michigan Task Force on Racial Disparities and appointing African American Lt. Governor Garlin Gilcrest to oversee it.
If King were living, he would be dismayed by the attempts of legislative bodies to change voting laws. However, he would be more determined to lead broad coalitions to do everything in his power to stop such attempts at every level. He would vehemently oppose the recent redistricting in Michigan and its unfairness to Black voters in Detroit.
King would be an ardent advocate for the passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, making it illegal to enforce voting rules that discriminate based on race, language or ethnicity. The Bill, currently stalled in the Senate, would propel King to aggressively push and challenge Republican and Democrat lawmakers to pass the proposed bill.
However, there’s a good possibility that King wouldn’t endorse specific lawmakers running in the 2022 midterm elections and 2024 Presidential Election based on his history of endorsements.
Case-in-point: one week before the 1960 presidential election, King was asked about his plans to endorse John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon. King said, “The organization of which I am president, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, from its inception and in its constitution has been nonpartisan. Accordingly, as its titular head, I am unable to endorse a political party or its candidate. Moreover, the role that is mine in the emerging social order of the South and America demands that I remain nonpartisan.”
If King were alive, he would undoubtedly revisit the role of the Black church in America, urging it to increase its engagement to bring about civil, social, political and economic changes.
“I think if Dr. King were alive, he would urge the Black church to wake up and return to the values that it once held,” said Dr. Steve Bland Jr, senior pastor, Liberty Temple Baptist Church in Detroit and president, Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity. “He would tell the church that it is our last hope of having commentary about what we see going on in America and mobilizing to do something about it. Dr. King would work with the Black church to make sure that it is not anemic or susceptible to the viral attempts to weaken its power to make vast differences in the lives of Black people across broad spectrums.”
It’s been almost 59 years since King delivered his iconic speech “I Have a Dream” in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Yet, what would King say about his “dream” and America if he were living?
“If my father were to just arrive today as if he had been gone for a number of years, I think he would be greatly disappointed in the America that he left, that he knew and believed had so much to offer the world,” Martin Luther King III said in numerous interviews about his father. “He would know that we are much better than the behavior we are exhibiting.”
Bland agrees, but adds, “Dr. King would remain hopeful that even with all that’s going on in today’s America – in some cases as bad or worse than in his time of leading the Civil Rights Movement – he would still believe evilness can be overcome because evilness isn’t capable of a perfect plan unless right-thinking people do nothing.”
If King were living, he would be 93 years old on his January 15th birthday. Yet, the universal belief is that he would continue building broad and powerful coalitions. He would continue organizing nonviolent marches and protests through the power of the Black Church and other entities of right-thinking people. King would never give up on his dream coming to fruition one day.