‘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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Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is coming up, and you know what that means: lots of talk about who has to go to work and who doesn’t. Plentiful “I Have a Dream” recitations. An annual reminder to elementary school kids across the country that it’s not nice at all to judge people based on the color of their skin.

And there will be—I guarantee you—lots of conversation about how the late civil rights leader would feel about everything that’s happening in 2014.

Can we skip that part this year?

Now, I’ve been as guilty as the next person of falling back on the “What would MLK say today?” shtick. Just last year I used red-carpet interviews to ask BET Honors attendees what King would make of current offerings in black entertainment. I practically forced them to try imagining a 1968 preacher’s version of “SMH” in response to, say, Bravo’s presentation of black women. Cringe. In retrospect, it was neither interesting nor revealing because it had very little to do with the man himself.

Plenty of analysis around last year’s 50th-anniversary March on Washington took a similar approach. We were treated to assessments of what King would think about “40 years of legal abortion,” black America, America in general, George Zimmerman’s trial, “education as the gateway out of poverty” and more. One piece even made up modern-day King quotes. (Its disclaimer— “Please note: This piece isn’t reflective of my views or King’s views. Rather, it reflects my view of King’s views—pretty much says it all.)

It doesn’t stop with politics or racial issues, either. Amateur psychic mediums have checked in with King about topics from bullying to rap music and pedophilia in the church. (Spoiler alert: He wouldn’t be a fan of child molesters.)

But I’d like it if we backed away from this approach to honoring King’s legacy. Here’s why:

We Really Don’t Know What He’d Say

Sure, we can speculate. King was progressive. He was for equality and for African Americans and all Americans.

We can take these general principles and extrapolate in a very rough way. But if the real question is “What would a progressive say?” why not just ask that? Trying to get into any more detail is tough because King’s take on specific issues, tactics and priorities is, like most people’s, hard to freeze in time.