By Paula Penebaker, President and CEO, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
Every year, the collective WE try to find new ways to honor Dr. King. I like to look at where the nation was at the time of his death and how we have or have not moved since his assassination. Following is our post published on January 20, 2018. See bold comments below on things that have changed since that post was written.
Since it was declared a national holiday in 1983, we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. every year on the Third Monday of January. Born on January 15, 1929, Dr. King would have been 88 years old this year had he not been assassinated in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968 at only 39 years old. I wonder what he would think of our country, today, how he would respond to issues of our time.
The evening before his assassination, Martin delivered his “Mountaintop” speech to striking garbage workers as a part of his work with the Poor People’s Campaign. Plans were in the works for another march on Washington where poor people would demand (as printed on a flyer for the demonstration) “decent jobs and income” and “the right to a decent life.” I wonder if a $15/hour minimum wage would be a reality, today had he not been killed. The Federal minimum wage remains—with a couple of exceptions–and has been $7.25/hour since July 2009. At least 29 states have increased their minimum wage, some with conditions/restrictions. Are the other 21 waiting for the Federal government to mandate an increase? Time will tell.
I believe he would have been heartbroken over the deaths of innocent men, women and children at the hands of men and women who are unsuited for public service in law enforcement, while praying for the safety of their comrades. Certainly, he would be heartbroken about the thousands of immigrant children that have been separated from their parents and put in cages, or have died from medical negligence, or have been (possibly) sexually assaulted. In the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, attempts to destroy basic rights like voting, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Dontre Hamilton, et al, he would have supported and encouraged peaceful demonstrations organized by Black Lives Matter and condemned violent reactions like Sherman Park. To critics, I think he might refer to his Letter from Birmingham Jail wherein he told the clergy to whom he wrote, “You deplore the demonstrations…but did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being…” More innocent people have died at the hands of public servants. I doubt his position would be any different.
Dylan Roof was sentenced to die for the murder of nine black church goers in Charleston, SC. I believe Dr. King would have advised against that decision. When stabbed by a deranged woman in 1958 and after learning of her mental state, he stated, “…I bear no bitterness toward her and I have felt no resentment from the sad moment that the experience occurred…” Certainly, he would have encouraged mercy on Roof, who himself is surely damaged. He would have encouraged us to stand in solidarity with the Jewish community and speak out against the carnage in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue and encouraged the government to take measures toward stricter gun control.
I believe Dr. King would stand with immigrants in their quest for humane immigration policies, speak out against atrocities like Aleppo, discourage our involvement in new wars, and rail against attempts to destroy basic rights like voting rights. In other words, he would be the 21st century version of himself. I think he would be appalled that a man (more than a few people have) described as a modern-day segregationist is situated to become US Attorney General.
Certainly, we have experienced great change and made positive strides in civil rights in our country in the 51 years since his death. He would have supported passage of the Opioid Crisis Response Act, in spite of the absence of support of individuals and families adversely impacted by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. Also, passage of the First Step Act is an important first step to more significant—and much needed–prison reform. Let’s commit to be vigilant in our protection of the things he worked so hard for during his short life.
Again, we must commit to more vigilance in protection of the things for which he sacrificed his life. Our civil rights are in danger of erosion: the assault on voting rights, gerrymandering, affirmative action, etc. etc. I believe Dr. King would be very disappointed in the country he held very dear as he said, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”