In less than 30 days, people from various points around the globe will gather in Washington, D.C., for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. However, in the midst of a political environment scarred by partisan grandstanding, an economic environment that boasts a socio-economic gap between people of color and whites at least three times its margin of 15 years ago and threats to education budgets among states, it will be difficult to stand next to the memorial without asking, “What Would Martin Do?”
The memorial, located on the venerable acreage that hosts the national memorials of presidents, museums and the White House, will be the first for a person of African heritage. More importantly, the memorial embodies the best of King’s dream: The sculptor for the memorial is Chinese, the design-build team was led by an African-American woman and the celebrity Dream Team embraces artists of diverse races, ethnicities and religious beliefs.
Yet, we exist in an era when many of the children who “the dreamer” referenced on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 are today in danger of losing government benefits such as Medicare or Medicaid. Meanwhile, others have lost their homes and retirement incomes, and still others are among the record numbers of unemployed across the nation. What would Martin do? Where would he begin to offer ideas for social programs or to convene leaders to bring answers to the people?
In 1963, King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” was released. The book recounts the story of Birmingham during that era with an eye towards personal observations and sentiments, including his compelling “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Among the providential tidbits that he sent to his “fellow clergymen” in that letter, King stated that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Indeed, this would be a resounding theme in his outreach and correspondence to the elected officials and organizational leaders of the day.
It would not be a stretch to submit that if King were with us today, he would balk with incredulity at the suggestion that a social program that assists senior citizens would be cut, but that an offer for increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans would be roundly rejected. It would not require an advanced degree to proffer that if King were still offered an opportunity to preach before the faithful, he would question the amplification of the wealth gap between racial classes and so many other social issues that merit more than just a tweet or a Facebook posting.
When King was assassinated in 1968, he had traveled to Memphis, Tenn., in support of striking African-American sanitation workers who had staged a walkout protesting unequal wages and working conditions. In other words, after he had led marches and demonstrations that culminated in a constitutional amendment guaranteeing African-Americans the equal right to vote and instilled in his people a spirit of nonviolent protest, he spent his last earthly days fighting for the social and economic rights of working people.
In the 1990s, the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?” (often-abbreviated WWJD) became very popular. It was a motto that Evangelical Christians used to offer as a reminder of the life example of Jesus Christ in governing their behavior. When it opens, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial will offer visitors a place of solace, reflection and meditative moments. Hopefully, they will also have an opportunity to ponder a response to the question, “What Would Martin Do?” I submit as the first answer: “SOMETHING!”