Civil Rights in Columbia

What would Martin Luther King Jr. think of the America of 2016?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 “March on Washington.” There, he would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 “March on Washington.” There, he would deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. AFP/Getty Images

It’s been nearly 50 years since civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis at age 39.

Had he lived, King would have turned 87 this week in an America that’s dramatically different, in some ways, from the one he knew during the 1960s. The country has an African-American president, for example, and the Confederate flag has finally begun to fade into the mist of history.

Still, there also are distressing echoes of King’s time. Many see voting rights for minorities imperiled again and hear an update of George Wallace’s harsh “us vs. them” rhetoric at Donald Trump rallies. And the murders at a black church in Charleston last summer recall the deaths of four little girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

King gave the eulogy after those killings by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Earlier this week, at an annual MLK breakfast in Charlotte, former N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham spoke about his sister and the eight other members of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church who were killed by accused gunman and white racist Dylann Roof.

The Charlotte Observer contacted Graham and several others – including activists, politicians, ministers, and historians from North Carolina and South Carolina – and invited them to ponder what King might make of today’s America.

Here are some of their answers.

Q. What about our country today do you think would cheer Dr. King?

“I think he’d be pleased that, despite our differences, people of good will have the ability to come together across racial lines. Our country has become more diverse, with more shades of color. You go to a restaurant, you see people of different races dining together. They are working together. You go to a concert hall with a black performer, and the audience is diverse. Individuals of color are now doctors, accountants, president of the United States. That’s the type of inclusion and equality (King) was seeking.”

Former N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham

“The Affordable Care Act. It’s been 50 years since King said, in one of his most famous speeches, that of all the injustices in the country, the injustices in health care were the most egregious and inhumane. I think King would be pleased at what President Obama has accomplished with the Affordable Care Act.”

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.who organized civil rights marches while a student at S.C. State College

“The fact that we did have an African-American president who was elected to a second term. The second term is important. It shows it wasn’t a fluke and it speaks to intentionality.”

Ophelia Garmon-Brown co-chair of the Opportunity Task Force for Charlotte-Mecklenburg, senior vice president for Novant Health and an ordained Baptist minister affiliated with St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church

“The only single thing he could express any joy about is the gay equality in this country. One of the advisers closest to him, Bayard Rustin, was gay. That bothered some, but it caused no discomfort to (King) at all.”

David Garrow, professor of history and law at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Pulitzer Prize-winning “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”

“I think Dr. King would be excited that there are still many groups willing to sacrifice and fight for justice and equality. And we’re using tools like social media to connect in ways he could not have imagined. That allows us to re-imagine his dream in a more collective, inclusive and unified voice.”

Community organizer Lula Dualeh,a Charlotte community organizer and a candidate for Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners

“(King) said ‘I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ With this in mind, I believe he would hold an optimistic perspective for the future.”

GOP leader Hasan Harnett,chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party

“I think the kind of mainstream acceptance of the dream (of integration) would cheer him. When he was working, his ideas were not mainstream. But today, there’s no longer a question about (accepting) legal segregation.”

Activist and organizer Bree Newsome a field organizer for Ignite, a youth-and-student led organization, and the activist who garnered national headlines last year for climbing a flagpole in Columbia, S.C., to remove a Confederate battle flag

Q. What about our country today do you think would disappoint Dr. King?

“I think it would trouble him that, even though there is no longer legal segregation, (white people and people of color) are in so many ways still segregated. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are about as segregated as they were in the 1960s.”

Bree Newsome

“I think he would be mortified at the extent of gun violence in black urban communities; at the extent of violence in the world, part of it religiously motivated; and at the extent and intensity of religious bigotry in this country, particularly against Muslims.”

David Garrow

“He’d be disappointed that black and brown people can be killed with impunity by the state. All police officers have to do (to get off) is say they were afraid for their lives.”

Democratic leader and minister the Rev. Ray McKinnona United Methodist minister and president of the Young Democrats of Mecklenburg County

“In his final years, Dr. King focused heavily on economic equality. But many minorities are dealing with some of the same issues he fought against 50 years ago. Recently, we saw that Charlotte was listed last in economic mobility. A person born into poverty here today will still be impoverished 25 years later.”

Lula Dualeh

“The fact that poverty is still very much with us. He thought of himself as a social gospel minister and, in seminary, he wrote down his three main issues: Unemployment, slums and economic insecurity. (After the civil rights victories in the South), he went to Chicago, moved to a ghetto, and launched the Poor People’s Campaign. Today, we’ve not only not solved the problem of poverty, we haven’t even addressed it. When we watch the presidential debates, poverty doesn’t even come up. He’d be even more disappointed in the (silence) of the church today on the issue of poverty. How many people will go to churches – even on their way to Martin Luther King celebrations – and walk by poor people in the street?”

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

“What he did in terms of civil rights was not for a people, but for all people. All boats must rise. But our focus today is not on all people rising. In some ways, we are pulling down some groups of people – Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and people who are poor, especially those living in generational poverty. We have lost that sense of our community.”

Ophelia Garmon-Brown

“I think he would be dissatisfied by (our) politics. Politicians should represent the collective body of people and not just a bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet.”

Hasan Harnett

“The way the Voting Rights Act has been gutted (by the U.S. Supreme Court and various state legislatures). After what he did to get voting rights, he’d be leading people down the middle of the street (to protest).”

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn

Q. If Dr. King was an up-and-coming preacher today, what causes do you think he would take on?

“Keep in mind how central non-violence was to him. He’d be marching around black neighborhoods – in Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia – and calling on black people to give up their guns. Gun-free households – that would be No. 1.”

David Garrow

“He’d be out in front on the issue of inequities in our judicial system. We’ve taken all the humanity and compassion out of the system. Take a little 16-year-old kid who has been misled or has made a mistake. A judge knows full well that this kid can be saved. But not with mandatory sentencing, which has given us this high rate of incarceration in this country.”

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn

“He would want to see our society get back to the basics of creating success. He would also want us to have a relationship with our Creator as we peacefully live with one another while understanding the U.S. Constitution. And he would continue to champion the ideals of freedom and equality.”

Hasan Harnett

“He’d focus on the effect of money on politics. The top 1 percent control our politics.”

The Rev. Ray McKinnon

“I believe his focus would be on a living wage for the poor, quality education and housing, health care for all, the rights of same-gender-loving citizens – all being underpinned in love for one another. Through love, we come together and we all are better.”

Ophelia Garmon-Brown