What would Martin Luther King Jr. think of America today?

Well, that depends...

Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Image credit: (Keystone/Getty Images))

Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 85 last week. And as the U.S. celebrates his birthday on Monday, pundits from all sides are engaging in an exercise retired English professor Harry Mosley calls WWDKT, or "What would Dr. King think about America today?" We can't know for certain, Mosley acknowledges in The Southern Illinoisan, "but based on his own words and actions, some probable inferences can be made."

It would be unfair to say that those educated inferences have absolutely nothing to do with what King would think and everything to do with what the inferring party believes. But let's face it: Even in the best of cases, all of this speculation is based on the assertions of people who knew King a half century ago, or who are scrutinizing his speeches and writings all these decades later.

With that said, let's take a brief tour through a sampling of writers of all stripes who are indulging in the exercise of WWDKT.

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Economic inequality

One of the seminal moments of the Civil Rights movement — and the one that made King a household name — was the 1963 March on Washington. Not everyone remembers that the march was "for Jobs and Freedom," in that order. Among its demands were a national minimum wage and "a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages."

After President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, "King kept moving leftward, to confront the racial and economic injustice that had created and maintained the black ghettos of the North, and the national hubris that had led America into the quagmire of war in Southeast Asia," says Lee A. Daniels at the New Pittsburgh Courier.

When he was killed, King had been planning to "stage a multiracial Poor Peoples March on Washington and involve himself in the bitter sanitation worker's strike in Memphis," Daniels adds. Those were hard years for King, his push for the working poor costing him the support of former allies, but they were "King's finest hours," Daniels says.

As in those times, Daniels says, America today is "being forced to confront the meaning of its widespread poverty and joblessness, and its diminished educational opportunity." And King's whitewashed radical militancy "offers a lesson to take to heart at this moment when conservative politicians and theorists are trying to restore inequality of opportunity as the law of the land."


Based on his public remarks, King "would probably disapprove of people using the welfare system as a permanent crutch," says Mosley at The Southern Illinoisan. Welfare recipients used to be stigmatized as "lazy freeloaders," and King would have urged the jobless "to view welfare as only a temporary aid while they diligently searched for gainful employment."

"Even if you are only a street sweeper," King once said, "decide that you are going to be the best street sweeper there ever was." That suggests that "Dr. King would be unhappy with the so-called 'entitlement' mentality," too, Mosley says. "Rather than see people just sit around waiting for the all-powerful 'nanny state' to provide them with all their needs, Dr. King would encourage them to be self-reliant and independent, taking responsibility for their own lives and not letting the government make personal decisions for them."

Gun control

One of MLK's biggest issues was the use of nonviolent means to enact change. And, says Clarence B. Jones at The Huffington Post, "I am confident that if Dr. King were alive, he would say that one of the principal defining issues today is not that of those rights and protections guaranteed under the Second Amendment to our Constitution, but the moral injunction of the Sixth Biblical Commandment: THOU SHALT NOT KILL!"

Our nation is awash in guns. Guns are the leading cause of death in America. There are more guns in America than people. Violence lies like molten lava beneath the surface of our society, just waiting to erupt. We can choose to be bystanders, cover our eyes and ears, or become pro-active to meet the challenge that Dr. King's legacy commitment to non-violence presents to us.... Repetitive platitudes commemorating Dr. King's birthday on this King holiday, in the absence of any public declaration to stop the violence, are irrelevant and meaningless. [Huffington Post]

War and violence

It's not just guns, says Jones at The Huffington Post. "Dr. King would say that the challenge of the 21st century is whether or not we will commit ourselves to current and future policies of governance that encourage and foster nonviolence as the only rational choice for resolving disputes among our neighbors and strangers, between different religious affiliated groups internationally, and between nations."

That would likely put him on the side of pushing for the Iran nuclear deal, peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and a bloodless resolution to the various conflicts in Africa. King's "unequivocal and unambiguous" commitment to nonviolence "was predicated on his belief that our ability to survive, internationally and domestically, is limited to only two choices: Nonviolence or non-existence, nonviolence or co-annihilation," Jones says.


So there you have it. Were King alive today, he would agree with both Fox News and Occupy Wall Street, be a strong advocate for raising the minimum wage and railing against sucking off the government teat.

We can probably all agree that MLK "wouldn't want his face on tacky nightclub fliers," says Jenée Desmond-Harris at The Root. "But when it comes to political issues, it's time to give up trying to read the man's mind."

Sure, we can speculate. King was progressive. He was for equality and for African Americans and all Americans. We can take these general principles and extrapolate in a very rough way. But if the real question is "What would a progressive say?" why not just ask that? Trying to get into any more detail is tough because King's take on specific issues, tactics and priorities is, like most people's, hard to freeze in time. [The Root]

"Dead people make great heroes because they can't speak for themselves, so you can project onto them whatever you want," Ohio State history professor Hasan Jeffries tells The Root. If you need to use MLK or any other famous dead person to bolster your specific point, Jeffries adds, it probably has less to do with that person and more with your attempt to "look for a cover."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.