*Whenever I even consider the notion, I think of Oprah. The woman would have practically adopted him as kin, in the reverential, obsequious fashion in which she has embraced Maya Angelou.
Winfrey would have had him on her TV show for as many appearances as he would have agreed to. And you can believe she’d have seen to it that for as long as he lived, he wouldn’t have a material care in the world.
Not that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have needed it. If he were still with us on January 15th, 2012, at age 83, he’d most likely be a multi-millionaire. With any luck, he’d be in accommodating mental and physical health and people would pay him to give speeches or simply show up at an event.
By the 21st century, Dr. King would have been awarded nearly every official accolade on the planet. He was presented plenty while he was here, including the Nobel Peace Prize. He even has a Grammy, posthumously awarded in 1971 the Best Spoken Word Album trophy for the 1967 recording of his speech, “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” The Academy certainly would have found a way to give him an Oscar.
Dr. King would have written many best-selling books and important papers and given talks around the globe on the state of the world, humanity, the nation, American politics and Black America.
He’d have embraced the so-called Green trend; would have encouraged the Occupy movement to march on but advise it to clarify its official platform. He would have publicly chastised the Tea Party’s subtle, disdainful double-talk as disturbing language that he is all too familiar with.
I imagine Dr. King’s relationship with President Obama would be, well, complicated. Dr. King would have liked Presidential candidate Obama–in the senator, King would no doubt have glimpsed a measure of the zeal and tenacity that drove his own elevated and seemingly impossible ambitions decades earlier.
However, King’s endorsement of Obama’s campaign might have come reluctantly (and only at Obama’s delicate, private entreatment), not because King didn’t believe, but out of concern for undermining Obama’s support among potential voters, both white and black, suspicious that the candidate of Hope was furtively connected to America’s bothersome past.
Indeed, old fashioned and out of step with the present is how I believe Dr. King would be viewed if he were here today. Like traditional soul music and basic etiquette, he’d be seen by many as the gentle ambassador to a portal of time and frame of mind considered ancient history.
I understand your skepticism. In the wake of the national holiday, corresponding media events, the proud, towering monuments, the parades and commemorative retail clothes, furniture and car sales, it is extremely difficult to buy the idea that if he were alive, Dr. King could be seen as outmoded.
But simply look at where things Dr. King fought for (and against) now stand in America’s consciousness. Along with education, race and gender often still ultimately determines the quality of life and opportunity in the United States.
There are places in this country–and not only at that Ohio swimming pool recently in national headlines–where, even if the “White Only” signs have come down, the mentality remains. One need only look at the bold arrogance of a collective of politicians on Capitol Hill serving under a black president to see what I mean.
I meet people all the time–decent and thoughtful, some in their 20s, others middle-aged–who, in the course of casual conversation, insist to me that the days of racism in America are over. I can fathom whites having this misguided view; I am mystified to hear blacks say the same thing.
King would be particularly saddened and frustrated that young black Americans, in their stark ignorance of American history, seem to think what happened in this country “back in the day” is behind us, that everything is different now. He’d shake his head at that hip hop and other popular entertainment which systematically demeans and caters to society’s varied dysfunction.
Every MLK Day, well-meaning white folk jubilantly wish me “Happy Martin Luther King Day!” as if the holiday is only for black Americans. They seem oblivious to the fact that the civil rights movement to which Dr. King helped give a voice served all Americans.
Too many of us don’t grasp the idea that no society thrives when a segment of its population, no matter who they are, suffer at the hands of segregation, prejudice and inequality. To this end, King would probably wonder what happened to the feminist movement that served to empower women before losing its steam and identity.
The reverend would be angered that for every woefully uninformed young adult, there are two older ones who slacked on the job of teaching younger generations the unvarnished truth: that the struggle is anything but over, that in many ways the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And so, while a living Dr. King would be treated a little better than surviving lions from the Civil Rights movement are regarded today–with a placid respect bordering on polite indifference–his ongoing message, though cliché, would be true: yes, America has come a long way in its treatment of people of color, women, disabled and the poor, but it has so very far to go.
I can visualize a rickety Dr. King sitting on stage with Oprah telling her audience this, and us all tearing up and feeling the love. We’d sustain the vibe for a couple of days before going back to how we were thinking before that show, eschewing our troubled yet valiant past and taking for granted an uncertain future.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]