Last week in class, my ninth graders were tasked with listening to, reading, and analyzing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s seminal speech, “I Have a Dream.” During this time, the students were able to grapple with some of the text’s content and discuss the implications of the speech at the time it was given and in today’s world.
During the discussion, a question was posed by one of the students: “What if Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t assassinated? Do you think the world would be different?”
The question was asked directly to me, and even though I gave an answer, I’ve been plagued by the question ever since. Ultimately, I think the answer that a person gives does depend on whether that person is an optimist, a realist, or a pessimist. Typically, I tend to be a realist, but in this case, I would say that my musings border on straight pessimism. I blame this, of course, on the current state of humankind and the constant barrage of news stories that makes me feel sad to be a part of it.
Let’s first look at a potential optimist’s answer (the one that I wish was my true opinion). If MLK was never assassinated, he would have been able to naturally live out the rest of his life, speaking on equality, justice, and human rights. He would have reached millions of people across the globe, and perhaps some movements (LGBTQ+ and Women’s Rights, to name a couple) would have gotten a kickstart earlier than they did because of King’s words of peace, love, and equality. It’s true; that is one possibility of this scenario, but is it the most likely? I would argue that if you look at the inconceivable amount of evidence of our society’s inability to accept true equality, there is no chance that this outcome occurred.
Sadly, that brings us to the realist view. As a society, we tend to mix the message with the man. If the man is fallible, then so must be his message. It’s this kind of faulty logic that has led us to mistrust many of the people in our government to date. But, let’s be clear; there is no such thing as a perfect person. Perfection is an unattainable, undefinable idea that no human being can live up to regardless of how “good” of a person he/she is. I get it; we want the people we entrust to lead us to be somehow “better” than we are. We crave that in a leader. We need that in a leader because if they aren’t “better” than we are, how can they tell us what’s “best” for us? How can they dictate laws and decrees and sweeping ideological views if they are not somehow “better?” But the harsh reality is that many of the people we put into power are no better than the average person, and some of them are a great deal worse when we get down to it. Regardless, there is no one in this world that is perfect.
Take Mahatma Gandhi, for example. The man is a literal legend; he was an activist that led one of the most successful campaigns against British rule in India through the methods of nonviolent protest. Before he accomplished such amazing goals, though, he went through a bit of an adolescent rebellion, during which he stole, became an atheist, and ate meat (among other things). Obviously, he turned that around and we regard him as one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world, but the point is, he, like all humans, was not infallible.
The point here is this: no matter what kind of person you think Martin Luther King was, you cannot and should not ignore the principles of peace, equality, and justice that he spoke of throughout his life. Society tends to undermine the message of a person because of his/her mistakes in life. It tends to destroy their reputations, and by extension, their messages, with things that don’t have anything to do with what they stand for. Conversely, sometimes that fame and the reputation of a person can overshadow the message itself.
So, to answer the question that was posited to me only a few days ago: “What if MLK hadn’t been assassinated?” I would say that in my opinion, I don’t think things would be much different than how they’ve turned out now. Yes, Dr. King was a great leader, speaker, and an effective instrument of change, but I have trouble thinking that changing the minds of an entire country, rooted and often blinded by its own history and rhetoric, could have been a job for one great leader. Yes, he was surrounded by an incredible group of people to help spread this message across the country and the world, but can one group fix the problems of a country that refused and continues to refuse to acknowledge they exist?
I do think that the message would have gotten out to more people in the world, but I’m not naïve enough to believe that we would be some sort of utopia of tolerance and equality if he hadn’t been assassinated. It’s 2019 and we’re still dealing with many of the same problems and issues that King spoke out against and protested today. Sure, we don’t have explicit segregation written into law anymore, but we also don’t have equitable funding for educational or arts programs in inner cities, which are predominantly made up of “minority” groups. Sure, we don’t have explicit disenfranchisement of certain groups of people any more, but we do have laws enacted in many states (mostly southern) that place voting restrictions on people who reside in those states, and those affected are overwhelmingly African American. Sure, we don’t have explicit legislation that legalizes slavery in this country, but we do have a prison population that is overwhelmingly African American who work for pennies on the dollar while serving out their mandatory minimum for marijuana possession.
The words of law have changed, but have we? King’s dream was for everyone to “cash the check” that America promised its people in the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We’re not there yet, but if we remember the message that Dr. King and other leaders have taught us, we may get there someday.