What Would Dr. King Think About America Today?

Fifty years after his death, he'd still have plenty to say.
11/13/2017 11:00 am ET
Mike Segar / Reuters

What would Dr. King think about America today? We get this question all the time at the National Civil Rights Museum – especially with the museum’s yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel, culminating on April 4, 2018.

This commemorative journey has made me more thoughtful about today’s America compared to the one 50 years ago. When we look at what Dr. King was focused on in his final years, he was pushing some buttons that made government and his traditional allies unhappy and nervous. I assume government wouldn’t be too happy with him today either.

We know that Dr. King took a knee long before Colin Kaepernick. The 1965 image of him praying on bended knee for the 250 protesters arrested marching in Selma for voting rights went viral. Colin #tookaknee to protest “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He said, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” I can see Dr. King taking a knee with him and the other athletes who are risking their careers to make a statement against racial injustice. I can see the faces and lifeless bodies of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Terence Crutcher, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Darius Stewart, Laquan McDonald – there are countless others.  As Rev. Traci Blackmon said at a museum event for the third anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting death, “there are a lot of people coming to see Ferguson as if there is not a Ferguson near you.” Yes, there is a Ferguson everywhere.

Let’s go back to voting rights. Dr. King would be deeply concerned after the lives lost, injured and displaced fighting for the right to vote to see what’s happening today. Voting rights have taken a deep swing backwards with voter suppression and intimidation. States are making it harder to vote with strict photo ID requirements, fewer early voting sites and limits on registration – TODAY!

In his final years, Dr. King focused on racial justice. He spoke of it in his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 1964 saying, “The struggle to eliminate the evil of racial injustice constitutes one of the major struggles of our time.” Sounds like today’s Black Lives Matter movement, started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, fighting against “a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

I can see MLK at the base of the flag pole giving Bree Newsome encouragement as she climbed up to take down the Confederate flag. That flag was raised at the South Carolina capital in 1961 in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and the protests happening there and around the country. Bree was protesting the murders of the nine black parishioners by a white supremacist in Charleston. Dr. King protested the murders of the four little girls, killed during the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church KKK bombing in Birmingham. These children and the other victims of church bombings were as innocent and unaware of their impending deaths as were the victims at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Racist symbols still exist 50 years later.

The movement #takeemdown901, led by Tami Sawyer, is pushing for removal of Confederate statues in Memphis. The issue of whether they should come down is a hot one across the country. More than half of America says keep them where they are, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. It looks like that’s not the direction we’re going in Memphis. I think Dr. King would be proud, considering what the statues represent, then and now.

If Dr. King were alive today he would have plenty to say, protests mounted, and litigation sought against mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline crisis. 

Dr. King would applaud the efforts of Tamika Mallory, Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez, organizers of Women’s March. They’re advocating for the collective power of diverse women and conducted the largest national march ever with simultaneous marches all over the country. Nine thousand came to the National Civil Rights Museum.

So, with this 50th commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination, the National Civil Rights Museum asks, “Where do we go from here?” It’s a simple enough question inspired by Dr. King’s final book. It was a call for action then and a call for action now. He determined in the book “that all Americans must unite in order to fight poverty and create an equality of opportunity. It was under this premise that his fight against poverty intensified.”

Mike Segar / Reuters

It was his focus on poverty and a call from Rev. James Lawson that brought Dr. King to Memphis. He came to help the sanitation workers, some of the city’s poorest, on his way to the Poor People’s March in D.C. Dr. King’s last act was fighting for their rights declaring that “all labor has dignity.” They were protesting amid an immovable city administration in 1968 against unsafe conditions, unjust treatment and unfair wages. These dignified men, the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers (true rock stars!), created an international call to action (“I Am A Man”), changed the course of the labor movement in Memphis and brought in the leader of the Civil Rights movement to do it.

In Emily Yellin’s “Striking Voices,”1968 Sanitation Worker Baxter Leach said, “I’m glad Dr. King came, but I hate he came ’cause he got killed.” It takes your breath away to hear their stories. Memphis would become a hotbed of racial tension, racially divided on the strike issue and not happy about the 10,000 tons of garbage piled on the city’s streets.

We invited the City of Memphis to join us in this commemoration. One, because we knew the eyes of the world would be on Memphis, but two, this was a chance to correct some longstanding wrongs. You can’t help but compare Mayor Henry Loeb and his administration in 1968 (amazingly, or maybe not, he served two terms as mayor), and all they did to block progress for the black community and the disrespect and malice shown the sanitation workers, to this new Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and his administration. We asked this administration, “What are you going to do? And it has to be good or it’s all for nothing.” The mayor responded by addressing some of the damage done to the sanitation workers with  grants to each 1968 worker of $50k supplemented by an additional $20k from the Memphis City Council – nearly a $1 million commitment. The City also announced plans to strengthen retirement plans for current sanitation workers. It’s been a long time coming. But as Mayor Strickland said, “It’s imperative that the City of Memphis do the right thing by these men who sacrificed so much on the mission that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to our city in 1968.” Absolutely!

Memphis is also erecting a lasting tribute to the Sanitation Workers with the I Am A Man Plaza which propels their story further. The city’s gift to these men who gave so much for us.

We’re proud that through the MLK50 commemoration, the National Civil Rights Museum has rallied not only Memphis but the nation (civil rights icons, new movement makers, opinion leaders, scholars, faith leaders, educators, youth, the arts, legislators, citizens and corporations) in taking a look back at what America stood for then, but also a look forward to what it stands for now.

We’re exhausted, but invigorated and hopeful that the commemoration motivates action. We even have a Pledge for Peace and Action with suggestions and resources for 50 weeks, culminating on April 4.

Where DO we go from here? We push the necessary buttons and move some immovable walls and get some positive social change done. Dr. King would expect us to.

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