What would MLK do now?

by Wornie Reed, Ph.D.
Director, Race and Social Policy, Professor, Sociology & Africana Studies, Virginia Tech

He would be very active and pushing others to join him, on the same issues he was fighting at the time of his death–the three major evils as he called them: the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war.

In this time of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, I am being interviewed almost every day by the media with the key question being what would he be doing today. Following is what I tell them.

I would not attempt to answer what Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) would do now if he had lived these last 50 years. Rather I will argue what he would be doing if transported to the present time without consideration of the intervening years.

He would be doing the same thing because the same issues exist!

Racism, if not worse, is not much reduced since he died. For example, in 2008 the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, co-chaired by former HUD secretaries, Democrat Henry Cisneros and Republican Jack Kemp, investigated the state of fair housing. To assess progress since the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (the year King died), the Commission held hearings for six months in five major cities. They concluded that ongoing discriminatory practices in the nation’s housing and lending markets continued to produce residential segregation.

Also, the racial disparities in employment and income have not changed since his death. For example, at the research center that I direct, we found in an analysis of all income reported to the Census by fully employed people that in 1967 Blacks earned 65 cents for every dollar that whites earned, and by 2005 this amount had increased to only 66 cents.

Racism in the criminal justice system continues and is probably worse since MLK died. For example, African Americans and whites use or sell drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites. And it appears to be open season on innocent black men as police officers continue to kill them without penalty.

The poverty rate is worse now than when MLK was threatening to “close down Washington” until efforts were made to reduce poverty in this the richest country in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign was his major project in 1968. The poverty rate for all ages in the United States in 2016 was about the same as in 1968; however, for children, the poverty rate is higher now than it was in 1968.

We would have an anti-war or anti-militarism movement, fighting against the exorbitant expenditures for war, as well as our continuing wars. The United States spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined, while our roads, bridges, and schools crumble, and too many children go to bed hungry each night.

Importantly, MLK would make the nation more aware of continuing racial problems, and he would undoubtedly focus more of our attention on these concrete life-affecting issues rather than our current overemphasis on problematic symbolic issues, e.g., hate speech, Confederate Flags and memorials. As MLK often said, “While it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from killing me.”

Based on his plan for the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, MLK would be leading a disruption of Washington to force attention to these issues. The big question for us is how many would follow him. We are not protesting the poverty rate now, and it is higher than in 1968.