In the spring of 1968, I was in the 8th grade at PS 103 in Indianapolis’ northeast side. I’m not sure what got me interested in the larger society around me; I think it was my US History class. What I do remember is that the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room was a shock to a young teen finding his way in the world.
I’m not sure I really understood anything about the civil rights movement. What I did understand was that MLK was striving for justice and society had its ways of stopping such efforts at disruption. It didn’t matter if it was a lone gunman or some huge conspiracy, it suggested the deck was stacked against those who pushed for change. It wasn’t the last time I’d learn that lesson.But today, five decades after the rifle shot at the Lorraine hotel, I’m reflecting on something different.
Last week at choir practice, there was a big celebration for one of our choir members who was turning 90. His family brought cake and the choir celebrated with them. Others in my church are 90 or over and are still vital members of the leadership.
If King had lived, he’d be a year younger than my choir member. In contemporary society, 89 is not unheard of. Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush are 93. Bob Dole is 94. is 93.
At the time of his death, King was focused on three key issues: poverty, racism, and militarism. He also would have challenged the ability of the wealthy to influence public policy while nobody was looking out for those in need.
When Watergate got serious in 1973, MLK would have been 44 years old. What do we imagine he would say about the moral obligation of leaders?
Can you imagine King’s reaction to Reagan’s supply-side economics? He would have been 55 when Reagan took office. Certainly, it’s not hard to imagine him continuing his poor people’s campaign and battling against the disinvestment of America’s urban areas.
Given these ponderings, I went to the excellent King Institute at Stanford to find things King actually said that would be relevant to other events of our recent history.
Consider the first Iraq war in 1990. King, at 61, would have had real issues with America’s role as world policeman and the lasting impact of war on another country. “Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call ‘fortified hamlets.’ The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new [Iraq} on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.” (Beyond Vietnam )
1992 Rodney King riots (MLK at 63, my current age): It has been widely reported that King suggested that riots are a cry against injustice. Without excusing the rioters and looters, he would speak of the larger issues. “I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society.” (The Other America)
1994 Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America (MLK at 65) “And this can happen to America, the richest nation in the world—and nothing’s wrong with that—this is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” (Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution)
1998 Bill Clinton Impeachment (MLK at 69): “We must walk the street every day, and let people know that as we walk the street, we aren’t thinking about sex every time we turn around. We are not animals to be degraded at every moment. We know that we’re made for the stars, created for eternity, born for the everlasting, and we stand by it.” (Some Things We Must Do)
2001 9/11 (MLK at 72) “My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.” (Suffering and Faith)
2003 Invasion of Iraq (MLK at 74) “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.” (Beyond Vietnam)
2008 Obama is Elected (MLK at 79) “As I see it, our problem is to make the majority of Americans who are willing to accept, and even to seek, integration aware of their responsibilities in this struggle.” (The Negro is Part of That Huge Community Who Seek Freedom in Every Area of Life)
2014 Michael Brown shot in Ferguson (MLK at 85) “And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” (I Have a Dream)
2016 Trump Elected 45th President (MLK at 87) “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “ought-ness” that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” (Acceptance Address for the Nobel Peace Prize)
I know enough of history to be aware of the limitations of counter-factuals. It’s possible that King might have changed his views over time. On the other hand, there is a remarkable consistency in King’s thought from his time coming out of Boston University through his last address. It’s worth spending time pondering what might have been.