“Where do we go from here?” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously asked in an August 16, 1967, speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.
He warned that despite “a decade of significant progress,” the problem of racism persisted. “The plant of freedom has grown only a bud and not yet a flower,” he added.
On April 4, 1968, a racist white man murdered King in Memphis.
Where have we gone? What would King make of America a half-century after he was assassinated? We posed the latter question to 23 Kentuckians—clergy, educators, union members, attorneys, politicians, political activists and social justice activists—from across the state. Here are their answers.
(All photos in this article are either personal photos provided to the author, or photos taken by the author.)
Abigail Barnes, attorney and Democratic state House candidate, Salem:
First of all, I think it is difficult for me, because I am not a person of color, to say I speak for him. I do think he would be disappointed in our progress, but I also think that if he saw so many people engaged in wanting to make changes and wanting to do better, he would be reminded of the passion that was occurring in his time. I think at one point, those of us who are not people of color thought we had solved it. I think for us to be able to come to a point where we realize that’s not the case and that we still have work together is a much better place.
Dr. Bernice Belt, social justice activist, Paducah:
First, I believe that it would warm his heart that there are still so many who believe in the Lord. Second, I believe he would be very concerned that there was still so much violence against people of color. Third, I think he would be very concerned that education enrollment was dwindling instead of increasing, which means that there are many people who do not understand the value of higher education.
Fourth, I think he would be concerned that there is still so much more parenting that needs to be done in the home. The next thing, I believe he would be concerned that church attendance is not greater and more consistent. I think he would be concerned that the enmity between the white race and the black race is ongoing and in some areas increasing. I believe he would be concerned that the White House has become the outhouse. I believe he would be concerned that there are too many fast-food restaurants and not enough good jobs coming into communities.
Dr. Brian Clardy, history professor, Murray State University:
In one way, he would feel vindicated because a lot of progress has been made so far as race relations and integration of the country is concerned. The affirmation of those basic rights has been enshrined into law and none of those laws have been repealed; they stayed in place. Great gains have been made. On the other hand, he would be disgusted and disappointed because we are hearing those old rumblings. We are moving far, far apart from each other as a society, and the voices of hate have the microphone. We also have neglected to tend to the poor, the weak, the left out. We are in a world with militarism, with raw and naked and raw uses of power and force. So, Dr. King would be very disgusted and very disappointed with that.
J.W. Cleary, president, Paducah branch, NAACP:
Dr. King would be very upset at the things that are going on in the White House. He would say we have the worst leadership of all time and the sad part is that the Republican Party is going along with him. He would say many of the victories we have won we have lost, and he would be ashamed of the United States in the directions we’re going.
And the bad leadership gives the bad police and the bad people the green light to do anything they want. But we still have to love each other and get along with each other and help each other because if one side is up, the other side is down. We as a people can only go so high, but if both sides are up, the sky is the limit. And he would say the NAACP and labor unions are still needed.
Dr. Crystal A. deGregory, associate professor, director Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal, Kentucky State University, Frankfort:
It is difficult to imagine what Dr. King might think of the American nation today. Even well-informed conjecture demands that one assume Dr. King’s views would have remained fixed over time, or that they changed in the way we imagine—which usually means that ways in which we desire. I’d like to think Dr. King’s vision of “The World House,” as first articulated in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize lecture at the University of Oslo and outlined in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? In it, King called on the nation to transcend tribal differences and all other constructs of otherness, to eradicate racism, poverty, and militarism at home and abroad, to curb “thing-orientated” materialism and finally to resist social injustice, resolving conflicts in the spirit of love as embodied in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Given these qualities as an aspirational lens to what a contemporary King may have wished for, the nation and world would be found woefully wanting. Not only have we failed to eradicate far too many historic wrongs, far too many have proved unalienable in the American experience. The result is an ethical morass of persistent structural and endemic violence—often based on race, class, gender, geography, sexual orientation and/or religious beliefs.
At a time when it is clear that some lives matter more than others, it is not enough to not be racist; we must be antiracist. It is not enough to not be homophobic; we must be anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia. It is not enough to be proponents of gender equality, equal pay and even of ending the wage gap; we must be champions of women’s rights to choose, to be educated well and to say “no.” The latter was King’s especially unfinished work.
As a Black Baptist minister, born, reared and largely educated in the South, King’s patriarchal views obstructed his ability to see gender roles and the confinement of women to “women’s work” as an oppression as endemic as any other “ism.” Mostly, I’d like to think whatever the nation’s nagging ailments, that Dr. King would have continued his thought and leadership as well as his personal development to the betterment of himself, nation, and world, and especially to the improvement of black peoples everywhere.
Charlotte Goddard, elementary school teacher and Democratic House candidate, Pottsville:
I think he would be saddened. He left a legacy for us and we failed to grab the baton and run with it. We dropped it and moved on. I am embarrassed about the state of our nation right now. Since Trump took office, the people who had kind of put themselves in a box out of sight have now come back out.
Chris Hartman, executive director, The Fairness Campaign, Louisville:
He would be disappointed and sad and would be in disbelief at the leadership in America today. But I believe that he would have hope and that his message to people would most likely be to carry on and to move forward and keep fighting for justice no matter what.
Ira Grupper, veteran civil rights and labor activist, Louisville:
Were Rev. King alive today, he’d see racism running amok, a revanchist executive, and a mostly right-wing U.S. House and Senate. Whereas the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1960s, was progressive, even enlightened, the court today is cold-hearted and reactionary. He’d see a labor movement weak and divided, with some exceptions, with the old imperial collaboration of labor and AIFLD–American Institute for Free Labor Development–replaced by different but equally insidious collusions. But he’d also see some unions, pushed by their memberships, displaying militancy–witness the teachers, solidarity with Guatemalan workers, etc. And he’d know la lutta continua, the struggle continues.
The Rev. Donna G. Newsome Hawkins, Paducah:
Dr. King would say we have important work to do and it’s going to take all of us to get the job done. Everybody has to come to the table. Everybody has to sit down and a solution has to be found. We know that where there is division, everything fails. The motto of our state is “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” and that is so true. A house divided against itself cannot stand. He would say that we have to come together in order to find a solution to the problems that we have today even after 50 years. Dr. King would say that Donald Trump should work on including everybody, not be excluding, but be inclusive.
Maysoon Khatib, adjunct professor of public speaking, Murray State:
I totally and firmly believe that he couldn’t be happy with the situation today. He would be horrified, but I don’t think he would be surprised. MLK understood that his famous dream was a dream and it was going to take a long time to come true. I don’t know if I’m going to see it my lifetime. I would love to be optimistic, but it is hard to be optimistic when we have so much farther to go. There is not one day that I don’t get up get up in the morning and say to myself, “Please god not another crazy tweet.”
Brent McKim, president, Jefferson County Teachers Association, Louisville:
I believe Dr. King would be troubled by how polarized our country has become, to the point of having the societal equivalent of schizophrenia. The same nation that elected its first black president immediately turned around and elected the most racially antagonistic president America has ever had. Dr. King’s last work was in support of unionized sanitation workers in Memphis. I believe he would be disturbed by the viciousness with which organized labor is attacked today. And, finally, I believe he would be very worried about the direction the current US Supreme Court is likely to take America. Rather than the progressive court willing to right societal inequities, as it was in his day, the Supreme Court acts most typically as an adversary to these efforts today.
Bill Londrigan, president, Kentucky State AFL-CIO, Frankfort:
Dr. King would be appalled at the level of racial hatred which presently permeates our nation. While great strides against institutional racism were made in the previous decades, it appears these gains have been virtually wiped out with the rise of billionaire-financed right-wing groups, candidates and pundits who incite and promote hateful ideologies and policies against African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants and other marginalized groups of Americans. Dr. King would also be encouraged by the work of Rev. Barber and the resurrection of the Poor People’s Campaign, as he recognized that the fight for justice and equality is never over. Dr. King would be marching and protesting with low-wage workers, teachers, unions and progressives seeking economic justice, which he recognized as symbiotic with racial and social justice.
Sharon Murphy, Emerge Fellow, New Leaders Council Fellow, Lexington:
I think Dr. King would not be pleased with America today, 50 years after his death and the deaths of many others leading the charge to improve the lives of people living in subpar conditions. The movement died. The attacks on voting rights are unjust, and some have been ruled unconstitutional, but the attacks keep coming. The issues of police brutality and mass incarceration–Rev Dr. King would be outraged and I believe he would be in the streets with people of color leading groups and allies to hold police officers and the criminal justice system accountable for their abuse of power.
In one of Rev Dr. King last speeches, he urged people to tackle economic justice issues. Nobody stepped up to keep the dream alive. Now, it’s 2018 and Rev. Dr. Barber has finally picked the fight up by reviving the Poor People’s Campaign. Poverty is not a black or white issue; although people of color experience higher rates of poverty, it’s a human issue. I agreed when Rev. Dr. Barber said budgets are moral documents. Budgets control what programs get funded. Today at all levels of government, we are seeing programs that help uplift people or keep them out poverty get cut or eliminated completely.
Mary Nishimuta, executive director, Kentucky Democratic Party, Frankfort:
I think he would be very disappointed that the income inequality and equitability of all citizens hasn’t moved any further than when he was rallying for those efforts.
Ralph Priddy, lay Baptist pastor, Mayfield:
He would be disappointed because, mostly, we are going backward. Trump is turning everything backward, and not only Trump—some black people have jumped on his bandwagon and they are ignoring what Dr. King and other civil rights people died for.
Julian Roberts-Robinson, vice president of recruitment and expansion, Kentucky Young Democrats, Paducah:
I think he’d be in disbelief over the terrible racist comments Donald Trump has made and over Jeff Sessions being our attorney general.
Jeff Taylor, Democratic state House candidate, Hopkinsville:
I think he would be of mixed emotions. He would be thrilled that our nation did see an African American president during a time when he could still be living. But I also think he would be highly disappointed in the current division in politics and race. I think he would see some notable gains in some areas, but I think he would be equally disappointed in the divisions.
Augusta Thomas, national vice president for women and fair practices, American Federation of Government Employees, Louisville and Washington:
He wouldn’t go along with what’s going on, I know that. He would be disappointed because racism has gotten worse since when he was back there trying to do non-violence. I thought it would continue—people would continue trying to do what Dr. King was doing. The country has gone from semi-better to worse.”
State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington:
He would be utterly ashamed. Much of the work that he committed his life to has shown limited gains and the leadership today is as bad or as worse than the 1960s. We have a lot of work to do.
Judy Tuggle, Democratic activist, Mayfield:
I think he would be very disappointed. There is a sense of hopelessness about the future, especially among young people. I was young when Dr. King started his movement. He made us feel like we could change the world. I also think he would be appalled at the evangelical movement’s embrace of President Trump; he would be shocked.
Kevin Walton, United Steelworkers of America Local 9443 human and civil rights coordinator, Madisonville:
He would think that we still have work to do. The work that needs to be done should be more along the lines of what he was working on when he was killed–not only racial equality, but also the Poor Peoples Campaign. Racial equality was one circle, but we want to draw the circle bigger and include more people–the labor movement and human and civil rights movements, along with the churches working together on issues that benefit the poor and the disadvantaged peoples of all races.
State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville:
MLK Jr. would be appalled at the United States of America in 2018. His vision of racial justice, unity, economic and legal justice and international harmony have all been sidelined by a majority of citizens who are increasingly focused on narcissistic lives of consumption, entertainment and tribalism. We have great work to do to break down walls–mental and physical walls–build bridges with each other, rid the government of influences by the greedy, wealthy one percent and corporations and welcome all refugees and immigrants. Today MLK Jr. would also be focusing on the destruction of our environment, our saturation with guns and our economic disparity and the deterioration of community and committed family life. We need a revolution of the heart to rebuild our country and the world that has been so harmed by the American empire.
The Rev. Clark Williams, chairman, The People’s Campaign, Lexington:
I think that Dr. King would be in many ways disappointed with the lack of progress beyond 1968 as it relates particularly to economic inequality and inequities. He would be especially disappointed in the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Carol Young, Democratic activist, Paducah:
He would say that under this president, we are going backward. This president is turning back the clock. It seems like everything President Obama passed he is determined to turn back the clock on. This president has a thing against people of color. When he says, “Make America Great Again,” to me he is saying “Make America White Again.” He seems to have forgotten that America didn’t start out white. There were Indians over here. It never was white America.
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