I’ve been puzzling over what to write about Martin Luther King Day. I knew I wanted to write SOMETHING; King was one of the most important and influential leaders in my life and on our world’s ongoing journey toward greater inclusiveness and justice. But so much has been said and written about him already—some of it shallow, some of it profound. And there are so many more things I could say. Where to begin??
And then I saw the cover of last week’s New Yorker. It’s an illustration of Dr. King kneeling together with NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett, arm in arm, praying. (If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look—I’ll wait!) When asked about his inspiration for the illustration, the artist, Mark Ulriksen, said, “I asked myself, What would King be doing if he were around today?”
So I started doing the same thing: What would King think about this current cultural and political moment we’re in as a nation? What would he praise or criticize, and what lessons would he have to teach us? Would he have voted for Bernie or Hillary? Would he have been on board with #MeToo? Where would he stand on #Oprah2020?
I know he’d be heartbroken—though maybe not surprised—to see the way white supremacists and other extremist groups have become emboldened recently and how, in the backlash to so-called “political correctness,” so many people seem to think it’s okay to have and express biased and hateful ideas. I know he would be outraged by President Trump’s “shithole countries” comment last week and the complicit silence among so many legislators who didn’t call him on it, along with so many of the president’s policies aimed at reversing the progress of marginalized groups.
I think he’d also be frustrated by how so many people think that once segregation ended, racism and racial injustice ended too. (Poof! Magic!) Or that it’s enough to be nice or, worse, that they should pretend to be color-blind. I don’t think that the problem is that these folks are bad people; But as King said, “Shallow understanding by people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding by people of ill will.”
So many of my corporate clients ask me why things haven’t improved dramatically with regard to racial and ethnic diversity and why women are poorly represented in the top ranks of their companies. I try to explain that it’s because we still have so much work to do: Exploring, confronting, and interrupting our biases; understanding how deep the roots of racism and sexism reach, and how racist and patriarchal structures and policies still shape our society today.
So, what would King suggest we do to try to bridge the divisions that still plague our country and our world—not just between black and white, but between income levels, genders, faiths, abilities and nationalities? Would he be leading marches in the street, giving speeches, running for office? I know he was in Presidents Johnson’s and Kennedy’s faces making demands, but I can’t imagine how he would approach the dissembling Trump.
I believe he would support the goals of Black Lives Matter, and probably join in the movement. He would see in those activists the influence of the movement he helped shape during his lifetime in their peaceful protests, civil disobedience, and symbolic gestures like the NFL players kneeling on the field.
But what would he say about the more controversial actions young activists are taking to fight for racial equality? What about the ones who illegally toppled a confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina, or who have demonstrated by blocking roadways in major cities or disrupting college lectures? Critics of today’s activists often invoke King’s name: “Why can’t they just stick to the kinds of peaceful protests that Martin Luther King led during the Civil Rights Movement? Those worked, didn’t they?”
They did work to awaken the ignorance in the country and disrupt the moral cowardice, but did they work well enough, given the inequity and disparities we still find ourselves with today? And can they work now? Some are questioning whether non-violence, boycotts and protests are useful anymore. Are there times when violence or destruction of property really are the only effective choice? What about the tactics of Antifa? (Is it OK to punch white supremacists?) It’s something I grapple with myself. I wonder what King would say, and what approaches he would advocate today.
I also ask myself if he’d be down with the voices of young black musicians like my son, who recently finished a new music demo in a style he calls “AfroFutureGrunge” that’s part hip-hop, part rock, part Afro-beat. He’s not preaching peace in his music; he’s talking about freedom and liberation and rebellion—about the police state he has experienced, the anguish of and injustice toward so many black, brown and poor people, and a clear demand for what marginalized people are entitled to. It’s more early Malcolm X than early MLK. (Meanwhile, his mother is trying to open a peace institute!) Still, I am moved by what he’s got to say and how he’s saying it.
My son’s music, and the arresting music of artists like Vic Mensa who hails from Chicago, calls out the Chicago Police Department and its collusion with the killing of Laquan Mcdonald. Denzel Curry, a young man from Carol City, a poor Haitian neighborhood in Miami, evokes the image of Angela Davis’ famous prison interview and sings about love and family. Joey Bada$$, whose music video for “Land of the Free” tells a disturbing story of our country’s ugly past and present while holding out some hope for the future generations. These angry and confrontational lyrics and the videos are a new form of legacy of protests by oppressed groups in America.
Might these blunt expressions of the struggle of dignity of a people have been amenable to a later, older MLK? In the last stages of a life cut short, King was constantly interrogating his own tactics, rhetoric, and philosophy. Would he have championed the voices of this new, more in-your-face, take-no-prisoners generation? I think maybe he would applaud the kind of art that spotlights the wrongdoing and breaks through the apathy and denial. After all, it was the strategy of the architects of the Civil Rights Movement to show the violence against black people on TV that moved the nation to action.
The status quo is incredibly resilient. All we’ve done to dismantle white supremacy and its enduring legacy has not been enough. The tide keeps pulling us backwards. So maybe King would have shifted tactics. On the other hand, he knew that when you engage the other side with anger, fear, hatred and violence, everyone involved becomes a little less human. He knew that it’s in some ways more courageous to speak to the heart of the opposition while keeping your own heart intact than it is to beat, shoot or kill. I also learned from King the power in community and coalition; we make lasting progress when we create opportunities for diverse people to unite in their common cause: making a world that works better for all of us.
One thing I do know is that if King were here, he would see the imprint of his life’s work all around him. Every time we protest for social justice, we’re calling on the civil rights movement, drawing on King’s leadership and example. It’s amazing when you think about how influential he and his fellow activists were when it comes to how we fight for all kinds of causes in our country and all over the world—even the ones in direct opposition to what he believed. By the time he died, he had expanded his ideas and movement from civil right to human rights around the globe. Some people say this expansion, and his attention on the plight of working men and women, hastened his demise. He is one of the courageous souls who has become part of each one of us and our shared consciousness and identity.
So, I have no definite answers to my #WWKD queries. But I do believe King would tell us not to give up, to keep the faith, to keep speaking truth to power. To look for and nourish a community of people of all backgrounds who believe in justice. And, above all, to do whatever we can to keep our hearts engaged. Because having the strength to love is how we affirm our humanity and give birth to life-giving possibilities. As King said, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”