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Asking Martin Luther King…

by Ralph E. Luker on Jan 17, 2003

Ralph E. Luker

When I’m out on the lecture circuit talking about Martin Luther King, one of the questions most commonly asked is: “What would Dr. King say about…?” The specific question may be about consumerism, crime, discrimination, domestic violence, drugs, hunger, poverty, racial profiling, rape, terrorism or war. I point out that he would be against those things, of course, but that it might be better to ask, “How did Martin Luther King know that these things were wrong?”

The usual question, “What would Dr. King say about… ?” or “What would Dr. King do about…?” is similar to that of the early twentieth-century novelist and preacher, the Reverend Charles M. Sheldon: “What Would Jesus Do?” Its most recent form is the Evangelical Environmental Network’s critique of Americans’ addiction to gas guzzling sport utility vehicles in the question: “What Would Jesus Drive?”

Scoffers avoid the moral weight of the question by offering variations on it and its possible answers. “Jesus drove a Honda,” one pundit assured us, “‘For I did not speak of my own accord…'” (John 12:49). A more focused question would be: “What values did Jesus hold that would bridle our consumerism?” Such a question points to our need of a moral authority in perilous times.

This year, we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday as the nation continues to respond to a horrendous act of terrorism. Our war on terrorism is far from over. With no evidence of any connection to the war on terrorism, we contemplate a second war on Iraq. Concurrently, President Bush’s very identification of an “axis of evil” seems to precipitate a crisis on the Korean peninsula for which we are unprepared.

Never more so than now, therefore, we need to remember Martin Luther King’s witness against the engagement of the United States in the Viet Nam War. The senior statesmen who led us into it now admit what a terrible blunder it was. They admit that King’s protest against the war was essentially correct. Better that our current statesmen listen to what King said than that they should live to tell us how wrong they had been.

Early in his ministry, King published an advice column for readers of Ebony magazine. To read it now is to be reminded of how much its questions and answers are conditioned by the world in which he lived. His readers asked about living in a world in which race relations were still rigidly segregated. In a society still unaffected by late twentieth-century feminism, he told a female reader who asked for advice about an abusive husband to examine herself for the cause of her husband’s behavior.

Had he lived longer, King would undoubtedly have changed some of his opinions. That means that we cannot simply rely on “What would Dr. King say…” Informed by his values, we have to think things through on our own.

Our world is very different from and in many ways better than Martin Luther King’s world. Racial discrimination no longer has the force of law behind it. We no longer assume that the fault for an abusive husband must lie with a nagging wife. Our world is transformed by the end of traditional colonialism and international communism, and domestically by the end of legalized racial and gender discrimination. So some of Martin Luther King’s specific advice seems outworn. But the question, “What would Dr. King say about…?” arises in a world still plagued by hunger, poverty, terrorism, and war. It will not do to ignore the question, because we can aspire to his dream of a world of real compassion and genuine peace.

One of Martin Luther King’s favorite sources was a nineteenth-century American preacher, Theodore Parker. In effect, King would ask: “What would Theodore Parker say . . . ?” Then, he would quote him: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In one of Parker’s famous lectures, he distinguished between “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.”

That is what we have to learn to do when we ask the question: “What would Dr. King say about…?” We must learn to distinguish between the transient, time-bound details in some of Martin Luther King’s advice and the permanent sources of ethical value that informed his leadership. Perhaps instead of asking, “What would Dr. King say…?” we should ask what the biblical and democratic values that inspired him tell us to do.


Ralph E. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.