Roe v. Wade: What Would MLK Do?

This week will mark the anniversaries of two very important phenomena: today commemorates the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and tomorrow marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Significantly, both King and Roe v. Wade represent aspects of the civil rights manifold: one emphasizes the personhood of all humanity regardless of race, and the other insists upon one’s right to choice despite gender.

Ironically, the battleground for civil rights based on race and gender remains under social and political occupation. Personhood is still selective, and women continue to fight for the right to make their own choices, specifically with regard to reproduction. To be clear, there has been progress, but not enough. Disturbingly, many still believe (women included) that women’s reproductive organs are somehow public and political, not private or personal, matters.

On this note, I will submit that America still has much to learn from Dr. King’s “dream,” which has yet to be fully realized. To be sure, King’s dream was more than the hope for an ideal culture of nice where everyone gets along just for the hell of it. That’s definitely not what I am talking about. And, let’s be clear, King was nobody’s feminist. In fact, it is well- documented that King was considerably sexist and patriarchal. So, that’s not what I mean either.

If he was alive today, I am not exactly sure where King would stand on the issue of reproductive rights. King was a dialectical thinker. Thus, he could be both pro-life and pro-choice concomitantly, taking what he needed from one side or the other and rejecting the rest, and thus forcing the rest of us to consider the possible “good” on all sides as well as the inconsistencies of our own positions. It is for this very reason that I think King’s dream is still useful. However, to get at King’s ideas beyond the surface, one must be willing to demystify King first.

So, forget holding hands with white people while singing “Kumbaya” for a moment (nothing against this, by the way—but this is not a means to an end). This is a distortion of King’s dream. The demystification process necessitates a look at King’s unsanitized dream: the one that was radically complex and intensely biting. The one that provocatively challenged the status quo by holding America accountable for not living up to its democratic ideals of freedom, justice, and equality for everyone—ideals that King himself had difficulty living up to in his personal life. The one that was never black and white or static.

King was a Personalist: when distinguishing between moral laws and social codes, he believed (in theory at least) that dignity, respect, choice, equality, and subjectivity were the moral rights of all human beings. However, these rights were stymied by social codes, which led to all sorts of disparities, including but not limited to racial and economic injustice, which King argued were morally evil.

Thus, King’s dream was a public censure of America’s inconsistent and contradictory status quo, not a plea to overlook differences and disparities for the sake of avoiding conflict. His goal was not that of unaccountable justice. In fact, justice necessitated conscientious disobedience to injustice, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, in the forty years since his death, this message has in many ways been obscured.

King’s message of radical and absolute justice has been frustratingly exploited and commoditized, sublimated for a dream of simplistic pseudo-camaraderie. Thus, instead of fulfilling the “dream,” we have shamefully sabotaged his social and moral legacy. However, if we really believe in King’s dream and we want to make it come alive, there is hope (no pun intended). King offers us a guide to realizing a better America—one that courageously calls America out on its myriad shortcomings.

Thus, while King was not a feminist, I imagine if he were alive he would be standing in the trenches with those of us who continue to fight compassionately for radical and absolute justice for all people. Despite what the sound bites say, King’s dream was fluid. His ideas of justice and equality were constantly broadening and becoming more radical. Maybe I am an idealist, but I believe King would have eventually recognized and critiqued even his own inconsistencies, thus modifying his “dream” to be radically inclusive, regardless of difference.

Perhaps this is my dream. I actually do believe that King would stand in solidarity with women and men across the globe tomorrow in honor of the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. While he might sit uncomfortably with some aspects of reproductive rights (and would challenge us to do the same), I believe King would view reproductive rights as women’s moral right, not a political pact through which civil patriarchy can be enacted. I imagine King might also criticize the pro-life movement for fighting for the rights of the unborn while ignoring the rights of the born through the denial of equal access to education, security, health care, etc. However, on the flip side, King might also criticize the use of abortion as a method of birth control. Again, King was a fluid and dialectical thinker—many considerations went into the formation of his ethical judgments, and a primary consideration was context.

Overall, I think King would be a supporter of women’s right to choose. Choice understood in light of the preference of the choosing subject is a basic condition of freedom. King saw freedom as a moral right. Thus, King was on the side of freedom. However, freedom can be complex. King would have likely challenged the idea of subjectivity as it relates to the freedom of choice of all subjects involved, forcing us to sit with the possible tensions of our choices and one’s moral right to choose.

In the end I think King would have upheld women’s right to privacy and their right to make decisions about their bodies without interference. However, not without considering context and troubling the waters of each opposing side first. If he was alive, King would have challenged us to dream beyond our circumstances while forcing America to live up to its ideals of radical and absolute freedom, justice, and equality for everyone—regardless of difference, of course.