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.
“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.
Our Beliefs Don’t Require His Endorsement
“It shouldn’t be about he would he do but about what do you do and believe?” says Jeffries.
If you think African-American popular culture is one big train wreck, by all means, make that case. But if things are truly that shameful, it shouldn’t be hard to do the work of explaining why, instead of outsourcing the side-eyeing to the curmudgeonly and judgmental King of that one Boondocks episode.
When it comes to specific takes on particular issues, if you need a figure from the past—MLK or any other—to serve as an authority, it just might have to do less with that figure and more with your attempt to “look for a cover,” Jeffries speculates.
And King wouldn’t want that, now, would he?
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.