What Dr. King would be doing today!


Driving Professor Dreier: Everybody seems to know what Dr. King would be doing and saying were he alive today.

Almost always, Dr. King would be doing and saying exactly what the clairvoyant in question is inclined to do and say. This is one of the most annoying aspects of civil rights retrospectives.

Last Sunday, Professor Peter Dreier of Occidental took the practice to new heights. He wrote the featured, front-page piece in the Washington Post’s Outlook section.

“Where would he lead us today?” a large headline asked. “With new battles over gay rights, voting and economic opportunity, Peter Dreier says Martin Luther king Jt. would still be marching today.”

Not only that; with apologies, Dr. King would be exhausted! Can you spot the germ of a problem as the professor starts?
DREIER (8/25/13): What would the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. march for if he were alive today?

America has made progress on many fronts in the half-century since King electrified a crowd of 200,000 people, and millions of Americans watching on television, with his "I Have a Dream" address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But there is still much to do to achieve his vision of equality.

Fortunately, many Americans are involved in grass-roots movements that follow in his footsteps. King began his activism as a crusader against racial segregation, but he soon recognized that his battle was part of a much broader fight for a more humane society. Today, at age 84, King would no doubt still be on the front lines, lending his voice and his energy to major battles for justice.
Dr. King has been gone for 45 years. But the professor has “no doubt” what he’d be doing today!

We’re always annoyed when people presume to say what Dr. King would think about issues today, but there is a larger problem in Dreier’s treatment. As the professor notes, Dr. King would be 84 if he were alive today. Despite the professor’s lack of doubt, it’s possible that he wouldn’t be marching at all at this point.

Despite these minor problems, Professor Dreier set off on a cross-country ramble in which he listed 21 different things Dr. King would be thinking or doing were he alive today. Perhaps to hold possible hubris at bay, the professor split these activities into three groups:
Things Dr. King would be doing today.
Things Dr. King might be doing today.
Things Dr. King would probably be doing today.
We were struck by the professor’s self-confidence. We were stunned by the level of activity to which he’d condemn this great man.

Professor Dreier is one of the nation’s greatest clairvoyants. He knows what Dr. King would think and do about gun ownership, the financing of Detroit and the question of reset mortgages for underwater homeowners. The professor knows that Dr. King would be working with “activist groups such as Code Pink to cut the defense budget,” and “with the LGBT community to help push states toward legalizing same-sex marriage.”

For the record, that last activity seems to rate only a “probably.” According to Dreier, “Typical of most Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, King did not approve of homosexuality.” But people! No problem!

“His views probably would have evolved,” the probably-knowing professor says. Indeed, the professor’s clairvoyance is such that he can even say this:
DREIER: King never spoke publicly about his views on abortion, and he was murdered five years before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, but he was a fervent advocate for universal health care. "Of all the forms of inequality," he said in 1966, "injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." Today King probably would speak at rallies and participate in vigils at state capitals in Maine, North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere to protect women's access to health care and reproductive freedom—and challenge those who are trying to shut down Planned Parenthood clinics.
Dr. King never stated his view on abortion, but he would “probably” participate in vigils to protect women’s access to reproductive freedom. In short, Dr. King would do whatever he had to do to show he completely supports all of Dreier’s views.

For ourselves, we pretty much share all those views. Having said that, we think Dr. King earned the right in his astonishing life not to have people like Dreier treating him like a toy. How about some basic respect for one of history’s greatest figures? For a seer who didn't think like everyone else—for a giant, questing figure who conducted a genuine search.


  1. According to the Free Dictionary:

    no doubt
    1. Certainly.
    2. Probably

    Under Definition #2, the phrase "no doubt" can be used to indicate that there is some doubt. However, I agree with Bob, that even "probably" is a big overstatement by Drier.


  2. I think Lincoln would probably agree with Prof. Dreier.

  3. "Almost always, Dr. King would be doing and saying exactly what the clairvoyant in question is inclined to do and say."

    That should be etched in stone somewhere.

  4. I lived through the centennial of the Civil War. I remember a Life or Look article on "What would have happened if the South had won the war." I wonder what Dr. King would be doing today if that happened.

  5. Counterfactuals are always counterfactuals. Of course Peter Dreier is speculating--everybody understands that.
    Bob Somersby may not like counterfactuals as a genre. But in that case he should look at his own work.
    One of his major themes is that Al Gore would have been president except for how the media mistreated him. And that the country would have been much better off if Al Gore had become president.
    That of course is all speculation. It sounds reasonable, just like it sounds reasonable that MLK would still be marching for progressive causes today, but we'll never know.
    Everybody understands that--everybody, that is, except Bob Somersby, who continues to use counterfactuals while pointing fingers at other people who are doing the same thing.
    Bob Gardner
    Randolph, MA

    1. Let me help you, Mr. Bob Gardner, because you have either not read the Somerby essay or completely misread it. Here's the gist of what Somerby's getting at: "Almost always, Dr. King would be doing and saying exactly what the clairvoyant in question is inclined to do and say." That's a well-made, funny, and I think unique perspective on these kinds of exercises in clairvoyance. Somerby regularly offers such perspectives, and it is why many of us read him.

    2. MLK didn't march for all progressive causes then, any more than he would if he were alive and marching now.

      It is disrespectful to recruit a dead person (who after all, can no longer speak for himself) as a supporter of a modern cause, to add that person's stature to a cause he or she might not support, given a choice.

      I have no doubt whatsoever that our country would be better off had Al Gore and not George Bush been president. You don't need to hypothesize specious support for causes to know that -- you need only extrapolate actions based on the stated policies of Gore (especially with respect to global warming). Al Gore would not have attacked Iraq and that would have made a huge difference to many people. There is no extrapolation of MLK's views that leads to support for gay rights or feminism.

    3. The WaPo article didn't say he was engaging in speculation. The writer pretended he knew with "no doubt" what he claimed about MLK.

    4. 11:16, I also strongly believe that the nation would have been better off with Gore. But . . . we don't know.

      Perhaps the off-year elections of 2002 would have been the same bloodbath of the 1994 Gingrich Revolution and the 2010 Tea Party Revolution, with radical right-wingers in charge of at least one house of Congress and able to obstruct everything Gore proposed.

      And perhaps the GOP would have found some candidate in 2004 that would have made Gore a one-termer.

      We just don't know because Gore didn't win (at least the electoral vote) in 2000, as Bob Gardner states. Which leaves us free to speculate how glorious a Gore presidency would have been.

    5. Just how do you define a radical right--winger? I admit to a weariness with such labels and believe it a rather cheap manner to dismiss the opinion of another.

    6. to 11:16
      " There is no extrapolation of MLK's views that leads to support for gay rights or feminism."
      Sorry, that's just wrong. King was under attack at the time of his death because he refused to stick to civil rights issues, and was talking about nuclear arms and the war in Vietnam. Plausibly, he would have continued to add to his agenda.
      More to the point,to claim to know that he would not expand his agenda further is to engage in the same activity that Somersby accuses Peter Dreier of. Except in your case you have your facts wrong.
      Bob Gardner
      Randolph, MA

    7. I would define a "radical" of either wing to be a person more interested in obstructing in order to win the election than in governing.

      I recall the words of Rush Limbaugh, hoping -- even before he was inaugurated -- that Obama would fail as the world stood on the brink of economic collapse.

  6. Here's my take: When MLK talked about having been to the mountaintop, he didn't mean that he had put on hiking boots and scaled some Adirondack peak. He was using a rhetorical device. It wasn't a lie; it was a biblical allusion that conveyed a message about MLK's view of the future.

    Prof. Dreier is also using a rhetorical device. To make his opinions more appealing to his audience, Dreier recruits MLK as an ally and says that MLK would be with him in his views. It can be an effective device when plausible. On issues where it's not so clear, the device can backfire. (Like WWJD when applied to international trade negotiations.)