Would Things Be Different If Martin Luther King Hadn’t Been Killed?

Life, history in particular, is full of what ifs. After the impromptu speech at the March on Washington, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech became among some of the most powerful words ever spoken.

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On the 4th of April 1968, the man who had dedicated his life to peace, overcoming war, racism and poverty, was brutally gunned down at the age of 39 in the parking lot of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. What if that had not happened? What is he was not killed? What course would history have taken had the civil rights leader not have been shot dead on that fateful day?

One thing we can be sure of, he would not have kept quiet. He had the ear and respect of the people and he would certainly have remained a powerful voice in the injustices he rallied against. What must be noted is that the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1964 was already starting to direct his energy towards anti war causes and economic inequality just prior to his death.

Clayborne Carson, Stanford historian and also director of the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, said that is fair housing and economic inequality that drove him to march down through the hail of bricks and bottles in Chicago. It was the same thing that took him to support the striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

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“I don’t think of him primarily as a civil rights leader during the last years of his life,” Carson explains “Once the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, his goals extended beyond civil rights at that point. In his Nobel Prize lecture he pointed out the triple evils in the world. Racial oppression was one, but poverty and war were the other two, and those were what he had turned his attention to.”

Another expert on King, professor emerita of history and African-American studies at Drew University, Lillie Edwards had the following to say: “The entrenched racism King confronted during his trip to Chicago in 1966 and the escalation of the Vietnam War broadened his understanding of civil rights to include the entire national landscape and the nation’s role abroad,”. “By 1968, this broader landscape signaled that he was fully engaged in keeping pace with new arenas of social justice and willing to embrace new paradigms and new strategies.”

As with many political martyrs, Kings violent and public death gave him greater reverence than he had while he was alive. “If he had lived, there clearly wouldn’t be a Martin Luther King holiday,” Carson said, adding. “I think it was easier to see the idea of the holiday when he was no longer around.”