What Would Martin Do?

His Past Actions Hold Clues

See also: Inequality in 2012 by the Numbers

During this time of the year, as we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the question is often raised: “What would Martin do if he were alive today?” The best way to answer that question is to revisit what he did yesterday.

At least three qualities characterize everything King did: He was astute enough to connect the dots; courageous enough to stand alone; and audacious enough to believe in and work toward a “beloved community.”

These three traits, along with his evolving emphasis on what he called “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” [1] provide invaluable insight in answering the question, “What would Martin do?”

First, by connecting the dots, King was aware of the global, multidimensional, and interconnected nature of oppression. While racism was the primary “ism” that compelled his involvement in and leadership of the civil rights movement, over time he came to understand that racism was not the only form of oppression, and that oppression, in all of its diverse and insidious manifestations, connected suffering peoples all over the world.

That’s why he said things like, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” [2] He also said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.” [3]

He proclaimed, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. . . . We are interdependent.” [4] And, finally, he declared, “Together we must learn to live as brothers [and sisters] or together we will be forced to perish as fools.” [5]

Second, not only was King astute enough to connect the dots, but he was also courageous enough to stand alone. He was possessed with a kind of prophetic restlessness that meant he was never complacent, never satisfied with the status quo, never overly concerned about pleasing others as long as he believed he was pleasing God, and always pushing the envelope as he urged this nation to live up to its lofty ideals and the human race to become all that God had created it to become.

This courage is vividly expressed in a sermon he preached entitled, “Transformed Nonconformist,” in which he said, “Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.” [6]

And he said elsewhere, “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ and Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’” [7]

King took heat for speaking out against the war in Vietnam, as well as for launching the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, an extended multiracial protest demonstration in which thousands of poor people “occupied” the National Mall and lobbied Congress to address the issue of economic justice. King took these actions not because he thought they were safe, politic, or popular, but because he believed they were right. In fact, some would argue that his foray beyond domestic civil rights into an attack on American foreign policy and monopoly capitalism precipitated his assassination.

Third, in addition to being astute enough to connect the dots and courageous enough to stand alone, King was audacious enough to believe in and work toward a “beloved community,”—a world in which people would transcend the barriers of division and live together in a unified spirit of peace, justice, harmony, and love.

Note that one of his last books was entitled, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? For King, the choice was just that simple: “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” [8] As he explained, the human race has “inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” [9]

King’s triumvirate of issues—racism, materialism, and militarism—are still keenly relevant today, even though the nation has elected its first black president, the middle class is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before, and the end of the Cold War combined with the emergence of terrorism have forced a re-evaluation of traditional warfare. New “isms” have also risen to the surface, including sexism, heterosexism, ageism (discrimination against a particular age group, particularly the elderly), ableism (discrimination and oppression against those who are disabled), and the list goes on.

If you want to know what Martin would do today—whether we’re talking about women’s rights or gay rights, health care reform or immigration reform, environmental preservation or military escalation, high unemployment, deficient public education, inadequate housing, or the criminal “injustice” system—remember that he was astute enough to connect the dots, courageous enough to stand alone, and audacious enough to believe in and work toward a “beloved [world] community” in which all people everywhere have a chance to realize their full, God-given potential.

The Reverend Dennis W. Wiley, Ph.D., is pastor of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. He is a contributor to the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality, or FIRE, initiative at the Center for American Progress, which works to eliminate the social, health, and economic disparities faced by gay and transgender people of color.

See also: Inequality in 2012 by the Numbers


[1]. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence” in James Melvin Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1986), p. 240.
[2]. _______________, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in his Why We Can’t Wait (New York: New American Library, Inc., 1963), p. 77.
[3]. _______________, The Trumpet of Conscience (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1967), p. 69.
[4]. _______________, The Measure of a Man (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 48-49. [5]. _______________, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 171.
[6]. _______________, Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 19.
[7]. _______________, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” (March 31, 1968). This version of the quote can be found at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr. Another version of the same quote can be found in James Melvin Washington, Testament, p. 276.
[8]. _______________, “A Time to Break Silence,” ibid., p. 243.
[9]. _______________, Where Do We Go from Here, p. 167.