In a better world, Martin Luther King Jr. would be 90 years old this year.
That's breathtaking to think about. It isn't difficult to imagine a scenario in which King were still around today. Maybe he'd be leading a march or two. Certainly he'd still be a thorn in the side of establishment figures, pushing them to do more, more, more to achieve racial and economic justice.
Consider that the last political act of King's life was to join striking Memphis sanitation workers — then consider the often-hysterical response to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her agenda of free college and single-payer health care. Rather than being an icon of gauzy brotherhood sentiments, there's every chance a living King would have continued to challenge injustice wherever he found it.
Challenging injustice always makes enemies. And because of that, it's also easy to conceive of a world in which King is still alive, but much less universally admired than he is now, almost 51 years after his death in Memphis. Dead saints are easier to love than living gadflies, after all.
It's also easier to put dead saints to work defending bad ideas. Unfortunately, there's never a shortage of pundits and politicians using King as a prop to make arguments he probably would've rejected.
Was Martin Luther King Jr. really a conservative? No. If King were alive, would Vice President Mike Pence be citing his legacy as a reason for Congress to approve a border wall? Certainly not. Is racism nearly dead? Not at all.
King was animated by a kind of hopefulness that seems to have disappeared entirely from American politics, both left and right. We have largely accepted our polarization, and most of us have decided the best route to justice is simply to beat the other side, whether at the polls or in the courts, or perhaps at an impeachment trial. King wanted something more: He was after racial justice, and he was rightly impatient for it. He had tough-minded disdain for "white moderates" who wanted him to slow down and be less confrontational.
But King also believed in reconciliation.
King called this state of achieving both justice and reconciliation "beloved community," and it's an idea that remains central to the work of The King Center in Atlanta. King attributed the notion to the theologian Josiah Royce, but it was a goal also rooted deeply in King's philosophy of nonviolent Christianity. It is a vision that asks us to hate injustice, but not those who perpetrate it, so that we might ultimately live together in friendship.
That is a profoundly counterintuitive task. But King's goal of beloved community in no way lessened his commitment to end the oppression of segregation and racism. This is apparent when you listen to his 1957 "Birth of a New Nation" speech. Separating the evil from the evildoer can seem impossible and unnecessary, but King insisted we must.
Let us fight passionately and unrelentingly for the goals of justice and peace. But let's be sure that our hands are clean in this struggle. Let us never fight with falsehood and violence and hate and malice, but always fight with love, so that when the day comes that the walls of segregation have completely crumbled in Montgomery, that we will be able to live with people as their brothers and sisters. Oh, my friends, our aim must be not to defeat Mr. Engelhardt, not to defeat Mr. Sellers and Mr. Gayle and Mr. Parks. Our aim must be to defeat the evil that's in them. But our aim must be to win the friendship of Mr. Gayle and Mr. Sellers and Mr. Engelhardt. We must come to the point of seeing that our ultimate aim is to live with all men as brothers and sisters under God, and not be their enemies or anything that goes with that type of relationship. [Martin Luther King Jr., "Birth of a New Nation"]
You don't hear this kind of talk anymore, not on CNN or in our op-ed pages. Not in political strategy sessions, and certainly not at presidential rallies. If you're a Democrat, can you imagine calling President Trump your brother? Or, if you're Republican, can you imagine calling Hillary Clinton your sister? It seems absurd and impossible in today's environment.
But this was the essence of King's goal.
King's hope for "beloved community" wasn't just utopian whimsy. It was rooted in practicality. To achieve justice without reconciliation, he believed, would be to leave behind a residual bitterness that might cause old problems to flare anew. "Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil," he wrote in 1957, "and this can only be done through love." He wanted racial justice, when achieved, to stick.
I realize it's easy — maybe even expected — for me, a white male, to speak of reconciliation at a moment when that justice seems so far away. Certainly, it is unfair to ask people who are oppressed to take on the burden of redeeming or making nice with their oppressors. But it's difficult to grapple meaningfully with King's legacy without considering his clear belief that justice and reconciliation go hand-in-hand. We celebrate the man with today's holiday. Do our politics still have room for his larger vision?