Sometimes I like to imagine what the world might be like had Dr. King not been assassinated in Memphis, 46 years ago yesterday. And sometimes I don’t. It’s easy to romanticize the difference he might have made with a longer life. It’s also disappointing to see how far we are from the “Beloved Community” he imagined for us. Would the second half of the 20th century have seen more peace? Would the Poor People’s Campaign, which he was planning at the time of his murder, have galvanized the country into a serious eradication of poverty? Would we not see the immense income inequality we have today? Would we not have drones? Would we not have torture back in our vocabulary?
While it’s too much to put on one man’s life, Dr. King’s insights are strong enough to truly revolutionize our thinking. To be sure, his image has been weakened of its radical nature. Many people today think of him as merely standing for racial cooperation. Many Americans know little of his economic and nonviolent vision. Many know little of his critique of American military intervention around the world.
While his body fell in Memphis 46 years ago yesterday, the body of his work lives. We can learn his ideas, test them, imagine them, reflect on them. Or we can forget. The body of his work, books like Stride Towards Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where Do We Go from Here? remain largely unexplored. But they could be part of a way forward. His sense of reconciliation as the way to a more just society has barely been tasted. I remain convinced that his words and ideas can still guide us. Though it sometimes feels like that effort would be very hard to start.
As a poet, I write about his ideas often, directly and indirectly. As a teacher, I take every chance I have to use his writings and talk about his ideas. Perhaps that is a start. Using his ideas about nonviolence and reconciliation in personal relationships is a start too. That is something we all can do.
To reflect further on Dr. King’s life and work visit the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
The photograph above is from Getty Images. It captures some of the marchers in Dr. King’s funeral procession, April 9, 1968, Atlanta, Georgia.