‘What Would MLK Think?’ We Don’t Know, So Let’s Stop Asking

Let’s agree that Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t want his face on tacky nightclub fliers. But when it comes to political issues, it’s time to give up trying to read the man’s mind.

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“He was constantly evolving in his thoughts, and that evolution would have continued to impact his politics,” says Hasan Jeffries, professor of history at Ohio State University. 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 that goes hand in hand with racialized political potholes he couldn’t have imagined? Scandal? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Speculation Can Go Off the Rails

“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.” (Just one example: those highly questionable “Martin Luther King, Jr. Was a Republican. Vote Republican!” billboards.)

We can all agree that King wouldn’t be thrilled to be featured on a badly Photoshopped, ladies-free-before-midnight “No Worries Bash” club flier because, well, no one over the age of 21 would want to be featured on a badly Photoshopped, ladies-free-before-midnight “Freedom 2 Twerk” club flier. Beyond that, I’d much rather let the work he 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.”

He Had an Actual Life

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.