Today is the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Were he alive today, nearly 47 years after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, he would be 86 years of age.
This weekend our nation will observe its annual commemoration of this great man’s life. It comes at a time when national and international events have provoked a lot of discussion about what Dr. King would say or do in response to those events if he were alive today.
An entire generation of Americans has grown up associating Dr. King almost exclusively with his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech (which I copyrighted; it is now one of the most valuable intellectual properties of the King estate). Few people today know of his opinions on issues like poverty and income inequality, or of his early support for Israel and his public opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Although I have no polling data to support my belief, I estimate that he enjoyed an approval rating of 80 percent or higher at the time of his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, but that his approval rating had probably dipped to 40 percent or lower by the time he was assassinated five years later.
This blog post addresses some of the important contemporary domestic and international issues that I believe would be of major concern to Dr. King if he were alive today. My statements are not based on what I have read or on what some third party told me. They are based on my personal recollections of conversations and discussions I had with Dr. King one-on-one, and of conversations we had together with third parties, over the approximately seven years I worked with him as a political advisor, personal lawyer and draft speechwriter.
The night before he was assassinated, Dr. King spoke at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, before a large gathering in support of a strike by sanitation workers for better wages and working conditions. Among other things he said:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. … Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.
The contemporary issues that I believe would be of primary concern to Dr. King today, issues that challenge the coalition of support he enjoyed at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and threaten our ability to get to that Promised Land, are (in no particular order):
Systemic and growing poverty among a significant segment of the population.
Dr. King would regard systemic poverty in the United States as morally indefensible and unacceptable. He would publicly align himself with Pope Francis, who, in an address to the students of the Jesuit schools of Italy and Albania on June 7, 2013, said:
The poverty of the world is a scandal. In a world where there is such great wealth, so many resources for giving food to everyone, it is impossible to understand how there could be so many hungry children, so many children without education, so many poor people! Poverty today is a cry.
A few weeks later, in an address to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on June 20, 2013, Pope Francis added:
A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.
Dr. King would closely examine the amount of money expended on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the cost of maintaining our military bases around the world and compare those expenditures with those allocated toward reducing poverty, increasing affordable housing, and creating employment opportunities. He would put forward an updated version of his “bill of rights for the disadvantaged,” which he proposed as early as 1964. In November 1967 he wrote:
[O]ur country must undergo a revolution in values. The billions of dollars now directed toward destruction and military containment must be redirected toward a bill of rights for the disadvantaged. Such a bill of rights should provide an adequate education, income, home, recreation, as well as physical and mental health care.
Ubiquitous gun violence.
This year firearms are expected to surpass automobiles as the leading cause of death in the United States. Nationwide, young black men have the highest firearm mortality rate; the overwhelming majority of these firearm deaths were from homicides perpetrated by other black men. Dr. King would be forceful in speaking out on the reality of gun violence among young black men.
Efforts to limit voting rights by the U.S. Supreme Court and various state legislatures.
Dr. King would initiate a national campaign to restore the enforceability of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires that certain states and local governments get permission, or “preclearance,” from the federal government before enacting any change to voting laws or practices. As of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder on June 25, 2013, which declared Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act (the section containing the “coverage formula” that determined which states and local governments would be subject to the Section 5 preclearance requirement) unconstitutional, there is no way to enforce Section 5, and many states that would have been subject to the preclearance requirement have since enacted laws restricting voting. In those states Dr. King would seek to mobilize mass support for removing such restrictions.
Continuing police shootings of unarmed black men.
Dr. King would respect, applaud, support, and join the new generation of young people who are forcefully but nonviolently calling for an end of the disproportionate use of excessive force against young African-American men by police officers. He would participate in relevant demonstrations in Ferguson and elsewhere as long as they remained nonviolent. He would say not only that black lives matter but that all lives matter. He would declare that police shootings of unarmed black men require not “negotiation” but immediate cessation. He would say, “Stop killing our young people! They are the most sacred and precious asset we have as a people.”
Mass incarceration of black youth.
According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander, in some inner-city communities four out of five black youths can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lifetimes. Alexander elaborates in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:
The mass incarceration of people of color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born in slavery. … More black men are imprisoned today than at any other moment in our nation’s history. More are disenfranchised today that in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
The rise of jihadist terrorism and brutality.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a 2009 op-ed titled “www.jihad.com“:
[Islam] has a violent minority that believes bad things: that it is O.K. to not only murder non-Muslims — “infidels,” who do not submit to Muslim authority — but to murder Muslims as well who will not accept the most rigid Muslim lifestyle and submit to rule by a Muslim caliphate.
What is really scary is that this violent, jihadist minority seems to enjoy the most “legitimacy” in the Muslim world today. Few political and religious leaders dare to speak out against them in public. Secular Arab leaders wink at these groups, telling them: “We’ll arrest if you do it to us, but if you leave us alone and do it elsewhere, no problem.”
How many fatwas — religious edicts — have been issued by the leading bodies of Islam against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Very few.
Dr. King would reach out to Muslim religious leaders and initiate a dialogue around what they and he could do, jointly and publicly, to mobilize support against the perpetration of violence in the name of Islam.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dr. King would travel to Israel and to the Palestinian territories to meet with the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He would say to the Palestinian leaders that there is no circumstance in which the use of armed or other types of violence is justified in the effort to reclaim occupied Palestinian land from the Jews who currently occupy it. Similarly, he would challenge, on moral grounds, Israel’s continued expansion of settlements on Palestinian lands, which is at the center of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. His efforts might diminish the support he historically enjoyed from a broad cross section of American Jews, but he would maintain that his early public support for Israel and his uncompromising stand against anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad demonstrate the sincerity and authenticity of his advice.
In the face of possible criticism from the American Jewish community, he would reiterate a speech he gave in 1968:
On some positions cowardice asks the question “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question “Is it politic?” Vanity asks the question “Is it popular?” But conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.
The silence of many good people in the face of injustice.
Dr. King would still carry within him the resonating voice of Rabbi Joachim Prinz at the 1963 March on Washington, where he said:
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.
A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.
America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent.
Dr. King would urge religious and civic leaders to speak out publicly in the face of injustice and violence, whether in Ferguson, Israel, Gaza, Paris, Nigeria, Mexico, Cleveland, New York City, Florida, Pakistan, India, Syria, or Iraq.
Martin, we miss you.