January 15th marks the 81st birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. In the 41 years since Dr. King's assassin, many of us -- some who were around for the civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations, others who study history -- often wonder, what would King be doing if he were alive today? What issues would he be championing? What campaigns would he be leading? To put it in 21st century lingo, WWMD -- What Would Martin Do?
It is an issue I ponder as we celebrate this year's holiday. Dr. King had a singular genius for targeting egregious examples of injustice, and using the tools of his time -- nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, broadcast television, legislative and political action and many others--to press for social and economic change. 2010 is vastly different. It is the Internet age of Facebook and Twitter; it is a diverse and multifaceted media world of cable, broadcast, and satellite television. The U.S. has its first African-American President and is in the midst of a Great Recession and the War on Terror. How would Dr. King respond?
My answer may not be the only one, but being a student of history, I do believe my answer is right.
Dr. King would do it all.
The quotes, the campaigns, the overarching quest to bring social and economic justice to ordinary people are the evidence of the ambition that he had for all of us. The Poor People's Campaign wasn't about the unemployment rate, but Dr. King knew that unemployment -- however temporary -- should be used as a tool to address the underlying causes of poverty.
His oft-quoted phrase from The Letter from A Birmingham Jail, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere", would have caused him to look directly at the face of discrimination that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) people face and compelled him to speak up in support of their equality.
Of the contentious health care debate that the country is going through, Dr. King's view that "Of all of the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane," would surely have led him to fight for a broader, bolder, more progressive health care plan than what is before Congress now.
Dr. King's final speech, to the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee demonstrated his strong backing for America's workers. His support for workers' rights to organize was as clear as was his enmity for the forces of greed that opposed them. "That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth," he told the 1961 AFL-CIO Convention.
And there is no doubt about Dr. King's opposition to war -- and not just the Vietnam War which brought him criticism from the Democratic President, the mainstream media, and even some allies in the civil rights movement. That didn't matter to Dr. King, whose opposition was grounded both in his faith and in his economics, as the War in Vietnam began to take dollars from the War on Poverty.
What challenges would Dr. King face in advocating for justice? I think of those who would oppose the policies that he would espouse, from the Teabaggers to the Chamber of Commerce to the religious right. I know that they would have called Dr. King a socialist, a communist and other un-Christian like names. I think of the challenges that they pose to even incremental reforms on health care, pay discrimination, and marriage equality and know that we still have a long way to go.
I also think of 21st century politicians who opine that Dr. King's true legacy was "service". There is no doubt that Dr. King believed in service to the community, to the nation, and to those in need. But the strength of his legacy is clear. Dr. King was about justice. He addressed the toughest issues of his time, and did so publicly, without apology and in spite of threats to his life.
In 2010, we should do no less. WWMD? Dr. King would take on the hardest issues facing the people of this nation because of the love in his heart. Looking each issue straight in the eye and without blinking, Dr. King would engage in the struggle for change. Because as he said, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."
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