What would be different had MLK lived?
Written by Anthony Moujaes
January 21, 2014

Each year as congregations and conferences of the United Church of Christ celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, pastors and members honor the legacy of King and his impact on the Civil Rights Movement in several ways. From reading his famous speeches to hosting public forums to service days in his memory to marching for unity, King's work for justice for all Americans remains revered for facing realities of racial discrimination and confronting racism in the 1950s and 1960s.

But how often is this question considered: In what ways would the world be different had King not been assassinated? King's life was cut short 46 years ago in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., at age 39.

That question, the subject of a discussion at a UCC church in our nation's capital, was posed to UCC pastors, and since it has no exact answer, the responses were varied and imaginative.

"At 85 years old, he would be bent in body but not in spirit," said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, pastor at Old South Church in Boston. "I imagine Rev. King mentoring the next generation of leaders. Maybe, had he lived, the Church in the US would be stronger, clearer of purpose and more firmly united around God's two great loves: righteousness and justice. Perhaps the Church would be richer, better, finer, a more courageous and effective agent of God's love had he been allowed to 'grow and wax strong in spirit' beyond the age of 40."

Pondering what the world would be like had King lived was first questioned in a movie that was shown at a Washington, D.C., congregation. First Congregational Church looked at King's work through a different lens. As an alternative to its worship service on Sunday, Jan. 20, the congregation showed a film titled, "Our Friend Martin," for its youth members. The 60-minute animated special is inspired by the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and poses the question, "What would our lives be like if the famed civil rights leader had lived?"

King's role in the Civil Rights Movement through non-violent demonstration was tremendous, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, which elevated his publicity nationally, to the March on Washington in 1963, when he gave his famed "I Have a Dream" speech.

The Rev. Barbra Hardy, pastor at First Congregational Church in D.C., saw King's work live on through his followers.

"From my perspective, the work of Dr. King was continued through the hands and minds and feet of other people because he was so inspirational," said Hardy. "I want our young people to make that connection for themselves; that it's an ongoing process, and that process is part of God's work in humanity."

The Rev. Bernard Wilson, pastor at Norfield Congregational UCC in Weston, Conn., and chair of the United Church of Christ Board, also believes that King's work is alive today, and that King would have championed other causes.

"What King did so eloquently was to call our nation to its best heritage," Wilson said. "So had he lived, he would still be fighting the good fight. He would have spoken out against war, invasion of privacy, voter suppression, 'stop and frisk' laws. He would have been a champion for universal health care, a rise in the minimum wage and would continue to be a voice for the most vulnerable among us, children and the elderly. Having said that, I do believe he did live and does live because he lives in those of us who've taken up his 'blood-stained banner.'"

The Rev. Susannah Davis, pastor at Kirkwood UCC in King's birthplace of Atlanta, considered the ways in which racism is still evident in the South.

"It is a curious question, and around here that was and continues to be his home, we experience a tremendous amount of racism," Davis said. "In talking with colleagues in other places, one thing is that racism still exists, but people aren't willing to be honest. While we haven't figured it out down here, there are pockets and honest moments of honest conversation."

If King had lived longer, Davis wonders if "we would be more honest about that conversation," she said. "I wonder if he were still with us, would others have taken his mantel the way he did."

Davis also thought about what King's lasting impact beyond racial barriers might have been had he lived longer. "What would it be for freedom and equality, for the LGBT community, the chasm between poverty and wealth?" she said. "Could he continue to teach us to bridge those gaps and connect us better?"

In what ways do you think the world would be different had Martin Luther King Jr. lived? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Mr. Anthony Moujaes
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