WASHINGTON — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is Monday, and you know what that means: Plentiful “I Have a Dream” recitations. An annual reminder to elementary school kids across the country that it’s not nice to judge people based on the color of their skin.

And there will be lots of conversation about how the late civil rights leader would feel about everything happening in 2014.

Can we skip that part this year?

Now, I’ve been as guilty as the next person of falling back on the “What would MLK say today?” shtick. Just last year I used red-carpet interviews to ask BET Honors attendees what King would make of current offerings in black entertainment. I practically forced them to try imagining a 1968 preacher’s shake-my-head response to, say, Bravo’s presentation of black women. Cringe. In retrospect, it was neither interesting nor revealing because it had very little to do with the man himself.

Plenty of analysis of last year’s 50th anniversary March on Washington took a similar approach. We were treated to assessments of what King would think about “40 years of legal abortion,” black America, America in general, George Zimmerman’s trial, “education as the gateway out of poverty” and more. A PolicyMic.com piece even made up modern-day King quotes. (Its disclaimer – “Please note: This piece isn’t reflective of my views or King’s views. Rather, it reflects my view of King’s views” – pretty much says it all.)

It doesn’t stop with politics or racial issues, either. Amateur psychic mediums have checked in with King about topics from bullying to rap music and pedophilia in the church. (Spoiler alert: He wouldn’t be a fan of child molesters.)


But I’d like it if we backed away from this approach to honoring King’s legacy. Here’s why: We really don’t know what he’d say.

Sure, we can speculate. King was progressive. He was for equality and for African-Americans and all Americans.

We can take these general principles and extrapolate in a very rough way. But if the real question is “What would a progressive say?” why not just ask that? Trying to get into any more detail is tough because King’s take on specific issues, tactics and priorities is, like most people’s, hard to freeze in time.

“He was constantly evolving in his thoughts, and that evolution would have continued to impact his politics,” says Hasan Jeffries, an Ohio State University history professor. Jeffries points to the way King “trailed his wife, who’d already participated in anti-war protests years earlier” before finally making the Riverside Church declaration against the Vietnam War, getting himself cut off from more-conservative civil rights activists. It’s evidence that neither King’s positions nor his alliances were static.

Then there was the famous bus boycott, whose very objectives, Jeffries explains, evolved from better treatment for blacks within a segregated system to complete integration. Naturally, as his reality and his adversaries changed, so did his positions and his goals.

And even when it comes to people who are living today, it’s not as if everyone on the left, everyone who was active in the civil rights movement or all black politicians or activists are of the same mind when it comes to contemporary issues.


Where would he stand on education reform? The Affordable Care Act? What about President Obama’s responsibility to African-Americans in an environment that could be seen as the embodiment of King’s dreams but goes hand in hand with racialized political potholes he couldn’t have imagined? “Scandal”? Your guess is as good as mine.

“Dead people make great heroes because they can’t speak for themselves, so you can project onto them whatever you want,” says Jeffries. And when it comes to hijacking King’s legacy, he adds, “Conservatives have really taken that and run with it.” (One example: those highly questionable “Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican. Vote Republican!” billboards.)

I’d much rather let the work King did speak for itself than attempt to bring it up to date and invite a fight with no authoritative referee about whether, for example, the “content of character” refrain translates to “I hate affirmative action.”

When it comes to King’s actual life, too many Americans’ knowledge is limited to about two quotes, a sugarcoated biography and the misconstrued history of a single speech.

“My frustration is that King is frozen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington – because we have frozen his politics in time and sort of narrowly framed what his political beliefs were, reducing him to ‘I Have a Dream.’ His politics and historical evolution get lost,” says Jeffries.

In other words, there’s plenty to learn about what King was before we get to imagining what he would have been. “It shouldn’t be about what would he do but about what do you do and believe?” says Jeffries.

When it comes to specific takes on particular issues, if you need a figure from the past – MLK or any other – to serve as an authority, it just might have to do less with that figure and more with your attempt to “look for a cover,” Jeffries speculates.

And King wouldn’t want that, now, would he?

— The Washington Post News Service with Bloomberg News

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