What would Dr. King say?

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, we might ask ourselves what the martyred civil-rights leader would say if he were alive today. What would he make of the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, for example? Of the Bush administration’s casual attitude toward torture? Of the Pentagon’s effort to develop “long-term solutions” for terrorism suspects whom it intends never to release nor, due to lack of evidence, try in court? Of the Patriot Act and the diminishment of civil liberties?

It’s easy—and for some convenient—to forget that Dr. King spent his life challenging the status quo in America. As a nation we’ve come to accept his vision of an inclusive, race-blind nation as an ideal, but have we also accepted his radical pacifism and call for a new morality that puts people ahead of profits and social justice before militarism?

What would King have said about defense contractors soaking up billions of taxpayer dollars for an unworkable missile-defense system while people are going hungry? As he once said, a nation that spends “more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

What would he say about the growing gap between rich and poor here and around the world? About Americans’ unsustainable consumption that continues to burn up the world’s fossil fuels, impoverish others and put the Earth’s health in jeopardy?

And what would he say about his dream of a society where the color of a person’s skin doesn’t matter? There’s been great progress, of course, but studies show our schools are nearly as segregated as ever. And America’s inner cities are too often desolate worlds where half the adults are unemployed, gangs rule the turf and one-fourth or more of the young men are in prison, on parole or on probation.

And what would Dr. King say about the illegal war in Iraq, one begun on false premises, fueled by manufactured fear and now mired in its own contradictions? It’s hard to see him doing anything but opposing it, just as he opposed the war in Vietnam, and proclaiming passionately that true democracy and peace cannot be won with weapons of war.

As we honor Dr. King for his civil-rights leadership, we should also honor him for his radical critique of power, greed and violence waged in America’s name. To do less is to fail to understand his greatness.