If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would in all likelihood be making the rounds between Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Florida to challenge them and any other state legislature trying to strip workers of the right to unionize and collectively bargain. And he would have encouraged those workers to stand up for those rights and demand that their states respect the dignity of labor, because, as he once famously said, “All labor has dignity.”
Unfortunately, he was assassinated 43 years ago today at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Even more unfortunate is the fact that 43 years later, so many African-American communities continue to struggle in too many of the same areas.
“If Dr. King were alive now, he’d be very much engaged in the issues of the day. He would, as he did then, defend the rights of workers to unionize,” said NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “He’d be, as he did then, seeking to organize people to rise up to demand an end to their exploitation; and he would be, as he did then, seeking to lead us beyond a country that is often more quick to prioritize war and incarceration than jobs and education."
Jealous believes that despite the social, economic and political progress that African-Americans have made, the country “has moved profoundly in the wrong direction” in some important ways. He pointed to the fact that many states are spending significantly more money on incarceration than on public higher education, and that some states are undergoing a resegregation of their public school systems at an alarming rate.
“The reality is Dr. King understood that kids of different races going to school together was profoundly important for the development of citizens, and the science bears that out. Kids that go to school in racially mixed environments are more adept culturally at problem-solving and crisis prevention, and they’re more likely to see people of different colors as equals and part of their world.”
In 2008, then senator Barack Obama delivered his Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech on the anniversary of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. On the anniversary of his death, Obama announced plans to seek re-election. What would King think of Obama? Undoubtedly proud but less inclined than many Black Americans to treat him as a messiah, Jealous suspects.
“He understood what every decent organizer understands, which is you don’t elect politicians to change. You elect politicians to make it a little easier for you to make change,” said Jealous. “If he were alive today I believe he would be encouraging people to accept their responsibility to be change makers, to build and maintain a great movement for social justice in this country and to hold their leaders accountable.”
At the end of the day, Jealous said, King would hold Obama just as accountable as he did other presidents. King, also a Nobel Prize winner, would not be afraid to challenge the president on such issues as the three military operations in which the U.S. is currently engaged—the late civil rights leader frequently denounced “the sin of militarism”—particularly during a time when so many Americans are struggling.
Jealous cautioned against “confusing Obama with Moses,” and, speaking from his own heart, he stressed the urgent need for people of all color to stand up and fight for rights.
“We are not facing the sudden right turn in politics in this country as much because some other group voted more, but mostly because we and our allies voted less. That sort of personal responsibility to force the country to take collective responsibility for all of its citizens is ultimately a lot of what Dr. King was about,” Jealous said.
Related: Notable MLK Quotes
(Photo: Vernon Matthews/Commercial Appeal/Landov)