by Micah Jones
What would Martin Luther King Jr. do? It seems to be the question at the center of every MLK day celebration. In many ways, it speaks to the process by which real, complex, flawed people are hollowed out in order to make martyrs. As we celebrate this national holiday in his honor, we ought to reflect on the question of what role the dead have to play in the questions of the present.
We make people into martyrs as part of a broader project of creating a usable history from the past. The past is the things that have happened before the present; history is how we have made meaning out of the past. Therefore, asking what a historical figure would think about the present day tells us more about the historical narratives we’re constructing in the present than the actual events of the past.
Martin Luther King, Jr. died on April 4th 1968. Whatever thoughts and opinions he might have had about the events of April 5th, 1968 or January 18th, 2016 are inaccessible to us now.
People can and often do change. If Eldridge Cleaver, a leading figure in the Black Panther Party, had died in 1971 instead of 1998, he would never have become a conservative republican and a Mormon. Simply put, we cannot say with any degree of certainty at all who Martin Luther King would have become.
We can however, discuss who he was. There is a significant body of evidence on King’s relationships to women within the movement. One woman in particular who played a strong role in King’s early development was Ella Baker. By the time she met King, Baker had been a Civil Rights activist for decades. By 1943, she had become the highest ranking woman in the NAACP. At the time, King would only have been fourteen.
In the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Baker along with Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levinson, came up with the idea to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and organized its founding. Because the ministers who made up the SCLC did not have any organizing experience, Ella Baker was the SCLC’s first paid staffer brought on to help organize their early projects. Despite the fact that Baker was older than most of the ministers, more experienced, and essential to the SCLC’s survival, she was constantly disrespected by King and the other ministers in the SCLC.
It is important to resist the urge to dismiss this and other acts of sexism as merely a product of the time. Baker was vocally pushing back against the sexism she experienced, as she experienced it. Bayard Rustin, a longtime activist, was Baker’s friend and frequent collaborator who respected her skills regardless of her gender. There were opportunities for King to take a more progressive stance on gender equality but he did not.
If King’s past was any predictor of his future, he probably would not have been at the cutting edge of women’s liberation. He very well could have changed him mind, but he also could have doubled down on his conservative notions of gender and worked against the women’s liberation movement. It is a little acknowledged possibility that if King had lived to be a part of the world today, he may have found himself deeply out of step with what the Civil Rights Movement has become.
We’ll never know, because Martin Luther King Jr. is dead and this is what it means to be dead. There is no more progress, no more growth, no more change left for MLK. Instead of imagining that we can grow and change him we must focus on how we, the living, can grow and change ourselves. This means critically examining King’s life and work. It means building upon the parts of his ideology that fit our present needs and repudiating or abandoning parts of his ideology that do not. This is not a comment on King. It is a comment on ourselves.
Most of all, we need to be more aggressive about reclaiming our moral authority. We have as much of a right to decide what we think is right and what we think is wrong in our day as those who came before us. We do not need the approval of our ghosts and our martyrs. They cannot give it, and the time we spend debating these questions is better spent working for change. This Martin Luther King Day, let’s stop asking “What Would Martin Luther King Do.” Rather, in our quest for a usable history, let’s ask what we can learn from what Martin Luther King did, and put those skills to use in pursuit of our own dreams.