10/28/2016 10:48 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2017

If Dr. King Were Alive Today

This Blog is co-authored by Jonathan D. Greenberg, Scholar in Residence, Daniel Martin Gould Center for Conflict Resolution, Stanford Law School.

On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr.
gave a courageous address ("Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence") to an overflow congregation at New York City's Riverside Church.  Part homily, part political advocacy, King spoke of the imperatives of conscience at a moment of national crisis.  "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now," he said.  "In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.... The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history."

On January 15, 2017, we as a nation will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 88th birthday, and we will reflect upon his life and legacy.   Five days later our nation will inaugurate the 45th President of the United States.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive, what would he say about the 2016 election?   What actions would he take?  What would he ask, or demand, of us?  

No one can know for certain the answers to these questions.  But Dr. King's sermons, speeches and press releases are in the public record; we can study their content and make reasoned interpretations.  In addition, a handful of people who were part of Dr. King's inner circle are still living, and they are in a unique position to provide evidence from direct experience.  Clarence B. Jones, co-author of this essay, was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s personal lawyer, strategic advisor, and friend, from late 1961 until Dr. King's death in April 1968.  Jones can speak about Dr. King's political views with intimate knowledge and personal authority.

On Dr. King's holiday, and throughout the year, we remember him.  We remember his absolute, unwavering dedication to nonviolence and love in the face of violence and hate.  

We remember his conviction that militarism, racism, "extreme materialism" are the greatest evils facing America as a nation and the human race as a species.  

We remember his faith that we shall overcome these evils by means of the coordinated, militant, nonviolent alliance of grassroots activists for black liberation, voting rights, welfare rights, migrant farmworker's rights, and nuclear disarmament -- precisely the kind of "agitators" that Donald J. Trump has relentlessly denigrated and attacked throughout his campaign.  

Dr. King's perspective was global as well as national.  He emphasized "the oneness of mankind and the geographical oneness of the world." He focused our attention on "this moment in human history."   King drew connections between political movements, such as the links between Donald Trump and right-wing authoritarian and nativists politicians throughout Europe today.  In this blog, we focus on Dr. King's place in American political history, and his interventions in electoral politics, and the relevance of these decisions for the present moment in our nation.
We have a very good idea about how Dr. King would analyze Trump's rhetorical strategy [rhetoric] and political slogans ("Law and Order", "America First" and "Make America Great Again") because George Wallace utilized a virtually identical strategy and slogans in his own presidential campaigns ("Law and Order," "Stand Up for America").

We know what Dr. King said about Barry Goldwater in 1964.  We know the reasons why King asserted that Goldwater's presidential campaign "threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation," why he urged all Americans to oppose his candidacy, and how King's analysis applies with even greater salience with respect to the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Marian Wright Edelman, the first African American woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, was a brilliant and fiercely dedicated civil rights lawyer for the Mississippi NAACP.  Her most influential mentor was Martin Luther King, Jr.  In turn, Hillary Clinton's most influential mentor is Marian Wright Edelman.

We believe that Dr. King would implore us to resoundingly defeat Donald Trump and elect Hillary Clinton as our next President - not only to firmly reject the racism and hate Trump has stirred up in American society, but to embrace the promise of social justice and human rights that motivated Clinton to take her first job after law school with Wright Edelman at the Children's Defense Fund and to sustain that relationship she has sustained throughout the subsequent years of her public service.

II.  Echoes of 1964

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, a significant portion of both major parties opposed Dr. King and the civil rights movement.  In an address delivered at an NAACP Emancipation Day Rally in Atlanta on January 1, 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr. analyzed the political demographics of the era:  

Actually, the Negro has been betrayed by both the Democratic and the Republican parties. (Yes) [applause] The Democrats have betrayed us by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed us by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing reactionary northern Republicans. And this coalition of southern Dixiecrats (Yes) and northern right-wing Republicans defeats every liberal move that goes before Congress. (Make it plain.)

At the same time, there was was significant bipartisan support for ending racial segregation -- support that was dramatically growing, in both parties, in large measure because of pressure generated by Dr. King's nonviolent campaigns.  

The Democratic Party was bitterly torn between the southern Dixiecrats, led by South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and Mississippi Senator James Eastland, and the party's liberal wing, including Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, Missouri Senator Stuart Symington, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, California Governor Pat Brown.  Republican politicians such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits, Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield, and Michigan Governor George Romney were among the most important political leaders supporting Reverend King and the nonviolent black liberation movement.  

In the 1930s, many African Americans became Democrats to support FDR and the expansion of New Deal programs.  But many influential leaders within the African American community (including baseball legend Jackie Robinson; Edward Brooke, the first African American senator since Reconstruction; and Martin Luther King senior, known in the family as "Daddy King") remained dedicated members of the Republican Party and ardently campaigned for its candidates.  
It is striking to recall that 80% of House Republicans and 82% of GOP Senators -- greater percentages than their Democratic Party counterparts -- supported LBJ's 1964 Civil Right Act.

Martin Luther King, Jr and Barry Goldwater

Dr. King perceived Barry Goldwater as a unique and unprecedented threat.  

Goldwater was the first Republican presidential candidate to implement a "Southern strategy" designed to exploit white backlash against civil rights. As he told a strategy meeting of southern Republicans in November 1961: "We're not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are."   According to former Vice President Richard Nixon, in an April 1962 Ebony Magazine interview, "If Goldwater wins his fight, our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party.  And that isn't good.  That would be a violation of GOP principles."

When the Republican Party nominated Goldwater for President in 1964, Dr. King felt morally obligated to issue the following public statement:   

Press Release:  Statement from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Republican Nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater, July 16, 1964:

"It was both unfortunate and disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States. In foreign policy, Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation. On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century...  Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated."

"On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy."

"While I had followed a policy of not endorsing political candidates, I felt that the prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented."

In his December 11 Nobel Prize address, four weeks following LBJ's landslide electoral victory, King celebrated Goldwater's defeat:  

"The American people revealed great maturity by overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential candidate who had become identified with extremism, racism, and retrogression. The voters of our nation rendered a telling blow to the radical right. They defeated those elements in our society which seek to pit white against Negro and lead the nation down a dangerous Fascist path."

Goldwater lost the election, but succeeded in seizing control of the Republican Party -- and radically transforming it.  For the first time since Reconstruction, a Republican won the five states of the Deep South.  Bringing Strom Thurmond to the GOP, and campaigning with the Senate's most famous segregationist throughout the former Confederacy, Goldwater triggered the exodus of the Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party and their conversion into hardcore GOP partisans.  As explained by Bernard Cosman, "[t]he result of Goldwater's southern strategy was the almost complete withdrawal of Negroes from the Republican presidential party."  In the years following his campaign, the once-powerful liberal and moderate wings of the so-called "Party of Lincoln" were eviscerated.

In retrospect, Martin Luther King, Jr's decision to oppose Goldwater, seems not only correct but prescient.  So do his clear warnings of the threats to democracy that appeals to "extremism, racism, and retrogression" represent.  

In October 2016, re-reading King's' Nobel address, we feel sadness.   The "telling blow to the radical right" was temporary.  The dangerous path he warned us about is even more dangerous today.   

Barry Goldwater and Donald Trump:

Like Goldwater's candidacy, Donald Trump's campaign has inflamed hatred and prejudice, spread racial division, and mobilized extremist and white supremacist groups on the far right.  Like Goldwater, Trump uses "law and order" rhetoric to generate fear, incite bigotry, and persuade millions that urban crime requires an authoritarian response.   
Reading each respective candidate's Republican Party nomination speeches, for example, you will find nearly identical rhetoric:  "violence in our streets... the growing menace in our country tonight, to personal safety, to life, to limb and property, in homes, in churches, on the playgrounds, and places of business, particularly in our great cities... the failure of public officials to keep the streets from bullies and marauders" (Goldwater, July 24, 1964); The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life... I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country (Trump, July 21, 2016).

And compare two New York Times news articles, one from August 20, 1964, describing a Goldwater campaign rally in Springfield Illinois; the second, from October 13, 2016, describing Trump rallies in Pennsylvania:

The indirect references to disorders and riots growing out of the civil rights movement seemed to be well understood by his audience... Saying that it was unnecessary for him to amplify, he continued: "Every wife and mother, yes, every woman and girl, knows what I mean, knows what I am talking about." Mr. Goldwater linked rising crime rates, public disorder and what he charged was dishonesty in high places into what he said was essentially one phenomenon... Mr. Goldwater was loudly cheered when he said: "You know and I know that there is something deeply wrong when law enforcement agencies are attacked for trying to do their jobs while open violations of civil order are defended."  

[Trump] worried the election could be "stolen" from him and singled out Philadelphia, a city with a large African-American population, warning, "We have to make sure we're protected." ... Mr. Trump began the day urging the almost entirely white crowd outside Pittsburgh to show up to vote, warning about "other communities" that could hijack his victory.  Later, at the evening rally in Wilkes-Barre, Mr. Trump raised more concerns about voting fraud: "I just hear such reports about Philadelphia," he said. "I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us...." He added for emphasis: "Everybody knows what I'm talking about."

There are haunting similarities between these respective Republican candidates, similarities that demand attention to Dr. King's grave warnings in 1964.  

But the differences between them are more disturbing than the similarities.

Dr. King found Barry Goldwater unqualified for our nation's highest political office, even though Goldwater was a traditional politician, with many years of public service -- first in municipal offices in Phoenix Arizona, and then in the U.S. Senate -- before launching his presidential bid.  
Moreover, as summarized by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in an afterword to the 2007 Princeton University Press re-issuance of "The Conscience of a Conservative", Goldwater's influential, elegantly-written 1960 essay in political philosophy:

Jack Kennedy considered Goldwater a friend and admired him for his many virtues.  These included patriotism, courage, humor, his sense of duty and ferocious loyalty to principle, his civility, decency, and his integrity.  Goldwater, he knew, was honest as daylight and unafraid to speak his mind.  Uncle Jack especially treasured those rare qualities in a politician.  

No doubt, Trump is "unafraid to speak his mind;" indeed, this is the quality his supporters perhaps most often cite with approval.  But the mind from which he speaks is a cesspool, and he has little or no capacity to refrain from dumping his thoughts into microphones, regardless of the propriety, decency or morality of his speech, the people who might be damaged by it, or the hate he might stir up as a result.  

Goldwater "spoke his mind" with a gruff clarity and unpretentious down-home style that charmed opponents as it thrilled supporters, distinguishing himself as a Western big-sky "rugged individualist" with the "guts" to passionately oppose not only the Washington political class but, just as importantly, New York corporations and limousine-riding business tycoons, and commercialism and "the materialist ethic" in all of its morally-degrading manifestations.

In contrast to Trump, Barry Goldwater's public record includes very significant efforts in support of civil and human rights.  Goldwater led the desegregation of the Arizona National Guard.  He desegregated his father's retail business in Phoenix.  He was an active member of the Arizona branch of the NAACP.  He was especially dedicated in his efforts to help Native Americans in his home state.  He voted for all major civil rights bills brought to the Senate before 1964.  

As Robert F. Kennedy concluded,

Goldwater was neither mean-spirited nor racist.  Nor was he a mere shill for Wall Street or the wealthy elite.  Goldwater's conservatism was always anchored in principle and idealism.  For Goldwater, the purpose of government was to foster societies where human potential could flourish.  

Donald Trump is no Barry Goldwater.  

III.  Conclusion

Trump embodies and represents the antithesis and negation of the core moral principles, religious beliefs and political ideas upon which Martin Luther King, Jr. lived his life.  

No major American figure alive today more clearly symbolizes and promotes the racism, materialism, greed, wealth inequality, nativism, hatred, and mob violence that Dr. King dedicated his life to fighting against.  

A Trump presidency would dishonor Dr. King's memory, turning his dream into a long nightmare of suffering.   

For these reasons, Dr. King would regard the present moment as a historical crossroads, a national crisis in which we as a nation are once again confronted with "the fierce urgency of now."

Polls suggest unusually high support for third party candidates in November, and the risk of significantly lower voter turnout among Democrats and progressives than Barack Obama was able to generate in 2008 and 2012.   

Dr. King's vision was deeply radical.  He demanded nothing less than "a revolution in values."  Dr. King was also a strategic pragmatist.  The long arc of history might bend toward justice, but history needed to be bent, day by day, and we are the only ones who can bend it -- citizens working together to achieve small victory after small victory in a never-ending political struggle.  

In this struggle, Dr. King regarded voting as the sacred obligation of all citizens.  He counseled movement activists, and all frustrated citizens, to reject the temptations of a third party "protest" vote.  Not voting was an anathema to him.  In an October 1964 radio announcement, for example, King implored all citizens to register and vote. "It is a part of the history of democracies that men have fought and bled and died to win the right to vote," he said.  

A decision not to cast a ballot this year, or to give one's vote to a third party candidate in this crisis election, would dishonor the memory of countless martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the right to vote, including Dr. King himself.