Tags: martin luther king jr | voting | representation

What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Think of Today's America?

What Would Martin Luther King Jr. Think of Today's America?
The statue of Martin Luther King Jr. is seen at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial January 18, 2016, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Tuesday, 16 January 2018 10:08 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 89 this year. If he had lived, it would be interesting to get his views of today's America. What would he have made of 2018 America, and of developments since his assassination nearly 50 years ago?

My guess is that King would have three basic comments. First, we have made a lot of progress since 1968. Second, progress seems to have stalled during the last quarter century. And third, the last ten years have brought setbacks.

Let's remember the 1968 baseline from which progress can be measured. The Supreme Court had found segregated public schools unconstitutional fourteen years earlier, but courts still struggled to enforce this holding. It had only been five years since Alabama Governor George Wallace stood in the school house door at the University of Alabama to block entrance of black students, vowing "segregation forever."

It had been only four years since Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and three years since Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act were signed into law. The year before, major race riots had broken out in several cities including Detroit and Newark.

In 1968 few black Americans held elective offices. The Supreme Court had found prohibitions against interracial marriages to be unconstitutional only the previous year, the same year the first black person was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Given this 1968 baseline, clearly Martin Luther King would have been correct to say that today's U.S. shows impressive progress. Interracial marriages are on an upswing. There has been an eightfold increase in the number of black people in the House of Representatives, and there have been black senators, governors, cabinet members, and mayors to an extent unheard of in 1968. And then there is Barack Obama, twice elected president. Similar changes have taken place more quietly in the corporate and university sectors.

But King would have been on solid ground in noting that, except for Mr. Obama's election, social progress seems to have stalled during the last 25 years. This is despite a near obsession with racial issues in newspapers like The New York Times, where it is hard to read two pages without encountering a story deploring statistics about black representation in various occupations, professions, universities, and even Academy Awards, and written with the assumption that all divergence from proportionality is due to discrimination.

And Dr. King would clearly have been correct to note that race relations have endured setbacks during the last ten years. Attempts to prevent black people from voting, although fortunately not repeating historical KKK terror tactics, have taken the form of obstacles to registration enacted under pretext of reducing "voter fraud." In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the key provision in the Voting Rights Act that Congress had almost unanimously recently renewed.

Dr. King hoped that someday people would be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Donald Trump's election and the number of Alabamans who recently voted for Roy Moore would have shocked him. He would have been upset by the increased social acceptability of overt expression of racist views apparently unleashed by the 2016 election. He would have been terribly angry about the number of black Americans killed by the police, newly documented thanks to ubiquitous smart phone cameras, but also at the increasing number in some cities killed by their brethren when police, under attack, hesitated to patrol their neighborhoods.

I also think King would have been appalled by recent U.S. foreign policy.

Of course as a white man it takes considerable nerve for me to put myself in the shoes of Martin Luther King Jr. and try to imagine how he would react to today's America. If I have fallen short in this endeavor, I hope critical readers will give me the benefit of the doubt and recognize that I have tried to do my best. But I am quite certain about my own evaluation of King, which is that he, like the mainstream civil rights movement in general, contributed greatly to American progress towards the rule of law and thereby benefited us all.

In his famous "Letter From A Birmingham Jail Cell" (1963) King wrote: "An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow that it is willing to follow itself."

I differ from Dr. King only in that I do not concede that the unjust codes he refers to rise to the dignity of law at all. In my book, such abominations are pseudolaws, not laws.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 89 this year. If he had lived, it would be interesting to get his views of today's America. What would he have made of 2018 America, and of developments since his assassination nearly 50 years ago?
martin luther king jr, voting, representation
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2018-08-16
Tuesday, 16 January 2018 10:08 AM
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