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What if Martin Luther King was alive today?

Published 9:40am Friday, January 18, 2013

If Martin Luther King were alive today, what would he think of what our nation has become?

I’m sure he’d see much that would vindicate his struggles for racial equality. Certainly, he’d be more than pleased—probably surprised—to see a black American in the White House and minorities voting everywhere.

For those who did not live through those times, it might be hard to imagine the discrimination and segregation that existed, based on race, not only in the South, but here in Ohio and much of the nation.

Schools rigidly segregated, as well as neighborhoods, restaurants, and motels, with public offices held almost entirely by whites.

“Colored” drinking fountains and restrooms, a glass partition between dining areas in a bus station, a requirement that blacks sit in the balcony of the theater. State parks set aside as “whites only.” Millions of people denied the basic Constitutional right to vote.

Painful, and yes, embarrassing to remember those times. How could we? But Dr. King led the effort — joined by many whites — to change all that. They risked their lives, and he and others paid with their lives, fighting for equality.

Before he was shot and killed in 1968, he had been jailed 29 times for disobeying segregationist laws or orders not to protest, and stabbed and nearly killed. He worked, he said in his most famous speech, for a nation in which his children, and ours, would be judged not by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

But as happy as he would be with our progress in desegregating public places and opening the doors of opportunity in government, business, sports, and entertainment, Dr. King would not be happy with our seemingly endless wars.

He turned against the long conflict in Southeast Asia, warning that “the bombs we drop abroad, explode at home in poverty and unemployment.”

The longest war of his time — Vietnam — is now being replaced with an even longer war of our time, in Afghanistan.

President Eisenhower’s warning to beware of “the military-industrial complex” has not been heeded, and instead of solving the problems of poverty here at home, our leaders have wasted too much of our resources on a military that is larger than the next 10 countries combined.

The result has been wage levels, after inflation is calculated, that have dropped almost every year since 1968.

If we want to honor Dr. King, we need to remember that he was killed in Memphis, marching for the right of public employees to organize and strike over their poor wages and working conditions.

He would be dismayed to see that in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states, the governors and other leaders in their political party have waged a war on workers, trying to turn back the clock to where it was at the time of his death.

He would certainly be saddened, as many of us are, to see how President Obama—that first black President—is vilified by the opposition party and its supportive radio and TV media.

He was a very bright man, so he might not be surprised that this moderate President is called the “food stamp President,” a “socialist,” or shouted at while addressing Congress by an overly angry South Carolina politician.

What advice would Dr. King give us, if he were here in his 84th year to speak again? He believed firmly in non-violence, so I’m sure his solution to killers invading schools would not be for us to put guns in the schools.

He would no doubt applaud the Occupy Wall Street movement, and probably join it.

He would tell us to resist oppression by placing ourselves in the way of the powerful, when they are wrong and repressive, as they are when they cut funding for schools, try to block health care for all, attack Social Security and Medicare, hold down wages for workers, and destroy large swaths of our land in fracking for “the maximization of profit.”

If he were here, I hope he would reaffirm his belief, so that we all could join him in it, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


Jack Burgess is a southern Ohio writer and retired teacher of American and global studies.

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