COMMENTARY: MLK Today

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By Dr. Elwood Watson, PhD

A staunch advocate for equality in all its forms, Dr. King would be front and center, fiercely challenging unscrupulous politicians, greedy businessmen and opportunistic bureaucrats.

This month, millions of Americans will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King was, without question, one of the greatest historical figures of the 20th century. He dedicated his life in an effort to ensure that the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness would be in reach for all those who were marginalized and had been denied access to full citizenship rights for far too long.

Like many people, Martin Luther King was a complex man. He engaged in marital infidelity. He was prone to volatile anger. He could be bawdy and crude. Like many men of his era, he could be disturbingly and overtly sexist. At times, he suffered from envy. Other times, he could be ruthlessly competitive. In essence, he was human. Yet, despite these personal shortcomings, he was able to galvanize and awaken the conscience of a sizable segment of this nation (and the larger world), to a degree which very few other individuals were able to do.

It has become custom for many politicians, academics, pundits, journalists, cultural critics etc., to partake in annual reflections on the life and times of Dr. King as well as speculate on what he would think of the United States today. Elated, depressed, disappointed and disillusioned are a few of the terms that are routinely espoused. I would argue that ambiguity would likely be the most precise description to describe how King would view the United States at the moment. A deep degree of ambivalence.

Despite the fractured racial climate, this nation is notably more racially integrated (some would say desegregated) than the America in which Dr. King resided. Almost half a century after his brutal assassination, the nation has witnessed Black Americans become mayors of the majority of the nation’s largest cities as well as governors and senators. In the entertainment business, Black men and women have garnered much success. We have witnessed Black men and women become university presidents at some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation— most recently, Harvard university,– and of course, we witnessed the nation elect its first Black president in 2008. There is no doubt that Dr. King would have been thrilled with such unprecedented milestones in our nation’s history.

These accomplishments aside, Martin Luther King Jr, was realistic about racism and its pernicious effects. Were he alive today, I believe he would be an adamant critic of systemic and systematic racism. Although he would be 94 years old, he would likely, health permitting, be on the front lines with other activists, denouncing the ongoing police brutality that routinely claims the lives of many Black and Latino Americans as well as the seeming hostility and apparent indifference that has defined the mainstream media and a sizable segment of White America.

A staunch advocate for equality in all its forms, Dr. King would be front and center, fiercely challenging unscrupulous politicians, greedy businessmen. opportunistic bureaucrats. He would strongly advocate for the men and women across the nation who are tirelessly protesting for voting rights and challenging those who seek to deprive certain groups of such an opportunity. He would continue to bring attention to the multitudes of individuals who are being marginalized in our society.

He would have been a vociferous critic of outsourcing, neoliberalism, growing monopolies, corporate mergers, economic piracy of the one percent, stagnant wages, and ballooning tuition debt that is increasingly making college unattainable for many lower income and poorer students. Unlike many of today’s leaders, he would not have sacrificed his own people or political constituencies for his own personal gain. Dr. King would have seen that while there has been progress, there is still much work to be done.

Were he alive today, he would undoubtedly take the initiative to rectify what he saw as the wrongs that remain in our society and he would not relent from doing so until every American citizen, regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and religion would be able to say without any apprehension “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty I am free at last.” That is the Martin Luther King, Jr. I envision.

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Dr. Elwood Watson, Historian, public speaker, and cultural critic is a professor at East Tennessee State University and author of the recent book, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press), which is available in paperback and on Kindle via Amazon and other major book retailers. Contact Dr.Watson and BC.

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