MLK would celebrate advances, fight for more

This month, as we celebrate Black history, millions of Americans honored 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 full citizenship rights for too long.

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 those 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 few others 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.

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. 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.

Those 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 years old, that wouldn’t stop him from being on the front lines with other activists, denouncing the police brutality that claims the lives of many Black and Latino Americans.

A staunch advocate for equality, 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 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 personal gain. He would have seen that while there has been progress, there is still much work to be done.

Were he alive today, King 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 apprehension: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I am free at last.”

That is the Martin Luther King, Jr. I envision.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies. He is also an author and public speaker.