Three days ago, on April 4th, we marked fifty-one years since Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That awful act changed the course of America’s history. It’s impossible to know exactly how our country would have grown if he had lived. This year, he would be ninety years old.
Imagine if Dr. King had not been assassinated. Imagine if he had lived. How would the civil rights movement have advanced and deepened? What impact would his longer life have had on the war in Vietnam? Would his nascent Poor Peoples’ Campaign have moved American politics in the direction of compassion and justice? Would his Southern Christian Leadership Conference have become a force in national politics?
Imagine how Dr. King might have affected the women’s rights movement. Imagine his impact on the American wars in the Middle East. What would Dr. King have added to the environmental movement? What would Dr. King have added to the struggle for GLBT rights? How would he have responded to the AIDS crisis?
Of course, it’s impossible to know specifics with certainty. But we can know he would have brought his typical exacting thoughtfulness to these issues. He would have been an effective voice against the sloganeering of the Reagan presidency. He would have pushed back against the constant demonization of the poor. If his wife’s efforts are any indication, he would have been a powerful voice in the struggle against AIDS. Similarly, he would have been a leader in the GLBT movement from the perspective of faith, as Coretta Scott King was.
I think we know how he would address the dehumanization of migrants. We can easily imagine him reminding us that every major faith insists on welcoming the stranger. Imagine Dr. King’s observations of our current president. I am confident he would challenge him with fact and faith.
Would America have made progress against the three dangers about which he so thoughtfully warned us: racism, militarism, materialism? Would we be farther along in our struggles against police brutality? Imagine Dr. King speaking to Trayvon Martin’s murder. Imagine Dr. King in Ferguson.
I suspect Dr. King would push us well beyond our parochial and national concerns. Imagine if he lived to travel the world more widely. His wisdom and courage would surely have changed our nation.
Of course these questions are merely activities of the imagination. He did not live to see forty years. Since that is the case, it can still be important to imagine how he would see and act on the challenges of our time. Yet it is even more important that we see and act with the same wisdom and courage we imagine he would have shown.
Sadly, Dr. King is not here. However, we are.
The photo of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. was taken by the author.