King would have stayed who he was
January 25, 2023
This month, as we celebrate Black history, millions of Americans will celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King was, without question, one of the greatest historical figures of the 20th century. He dedicated his life in an effort to ensure 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, 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.
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 very few other individuals were able to do.
It has become custom to reflect on the life and times of King while speculating what he would think of the United States today. I would argue ambiguity would likely be how he would view our divided country 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 King resided. Almost half a century after his brutal assassination, the nation has witnessed Black Americans become governors, senators, and mayors in many of the nation’s largest cities. 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 we witnessed the nation elect its first Black president. There is no doubt King would have been thrilled with such unprecedented milestones in our nation’s history.
These accomplishments aside, King 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, that wouldn’t stop him from being on the front lines with other activists, denouncing the ongoing police brutality that routinely claims the lives of many Black and Latino Americans. He’d be a vocal critic of the seemingly 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, King would be front and center, fiercely challenging unscrupulous politicians, greedy businessmen, and opportunistic bureaucrats. He would strongly advocate for voting rights and challenge 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 the ballooning tuition debt increasingly making college unattainable for many lower income students. Unlike many of today’s leaders, King would not have sacrificed his own people or political constituencies for his own personal gain. He would have seen that while there has been progress, there is still much work to be done.
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. Contact him at: