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Stop Asking ‘What Would MLK Do?’Center for Jewish History

Stop Asking ‘What Would MLK Do?’


Jan 15 2016
Our speculation ignores the tragic reality of his death.

It isn’t just on Martin Luther King Day that we watch it unfold. It happens with national race incidents. It happens in heated conversations. It happens in tweets and Facebook comments. If you are someone who regularly hosts dialogues on race, this has surely happened to you. Being MLK-ed:

“MLK would never condone those rioters.”

“MLK would tell all of us that we just need to seek peace and unity.”

“MLK said... [insert quote taken out of context].”

“MLK would promote racial healing—not your words of anger and division.”

People want to retreat to easy answers, feel-good quotations, and rely on MLK’s work instead of our own. This convenient tactic lacks authenticity and understanding. If we truly valued the life work of Martin Luther King Jr., we would stop trying to predict “what MLK would say now,” as if he lived a long life and died of old age.

Whatever wisdom we think MLK would bring to this moment seems to often discount that he was assassinated on a balcony, taken from his wife, his children, his friends. Why do we think MLK would say anything other than an indicting statement of fact: “You killed me.”

It’s so much easier to think of King's death as inevitable, as that of a martyr, a heroic end to a life of public service. We'd rather not consider the bullet that ripped through his face, entered his neck, and severed his spinal cord, causing a quick, bloody death on that concrete balcony. We like our pictures in black and white.

To feel what his wife felt; to feel what his children felt; to feel what his friends felt; to feel what his supporters felt is to invite pain over celebration, rage over rousing speeches, devastating loss over convenient platitudes.

Rather than think of King as a person, a husband, and a father, we like to think of him as the stone statue in DC—large, strong, unmovable. King's legacy may be all those things, but he was human. He read lots of books, listened to lots of preachers, worked on the craft of writing and speaking. He was a human who laughed and cried, knew joy and pain.

Like most of us, King evolved in his thinking over time. He took a stand for racial justice and realized he could not talk about racial injustice without also addressing economic injustice. The more he talked about economic injustice in America, the more he recognized the underpinnings to military injustice around the world. King wasn’t a one-note leader. He didn’t have just one idea. The more he read, traveled, gained access to powerful, political spaces, he grew in his thinking and his passion for the disenfranchised.

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Stop Asking ‘What Would MLK Do?’