Noting the 15th anniversary of the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a number of people have asked me the question, "What do you think Dr. King would have been doing today were he alive?" My answer is that he would be engaged in the two kinds of political action available to citizens in a free society: "traditional politics," and what I call the "politics of creative tension."
Politics defined is the means by which we in a democracy translate what we believe into public policy and practice. For nearly 100 years, millions of black Americans had been denied the right to participate in that form of "traditional politics"-- in the South at first by brutal intimidation and later through use of literacy tests, poll taxes and other forms of discouragement.
Black citizens never believed that it should be public policy that we drink from separate water fountains, eat at separate counters and sit in segregated seats at the back of the bus. Denied participation in traditional electoral politics, we had no means of translating what we believed into public policy and practice.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave us inspired and effective leadership in crystalizing the politics of creative tension. That was what he did in Birmingham in 1963, challenging the "for white only" signs until the body politic responded with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that struck down racial segregation in places of public accommodation; and in Selma in 1965, leading to the Voting Rights Act.
Thereafter, the door to traditional political action was finally opened to us. At the time of Dr. King's death, 2 million new black voters had registered in the South alone. The number of black elected officials around the country was rapidly multiplying, from 600 to 4,000.
So what would Dr. King have been doing today? Promoting both forms of political action: 1) pulling together a new coalition of church, labor, civil rights, women's rights, environmental and peace activists to mark the 20th anniversary of the historic march here, this time for jobs, peace and freedom legislation; and 2) discussing a possible black candidacy for the presidency in the Democratic primaries, to focus on fiscal and monetary policy and domestic and defense spending.
Attempts to do this are under way, as are other actions that Dr. King would have been leading, including urging black elected officials to come up with constructive alternative budgets and tax policies, as the Congressional Black Caucus has been doing; organizing that new coalition; seeking economic empowerment; marching and going to jail in defense of black and white citizens in toxic waste struggles; and supporting Operation Big Vote for 1984.
Dr. King could have been the consummate black candidate for president in 1984--and he would have had a good chance to win it all as the champion of those in this country who want to end the decadence of racism, the scourge of poverty and the barbarism of war.