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Alternate History: Had King Lived

Imagining the America and the World that Martin Luther King could have built.

January 25, 2014

Editor’s Note: Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, while staying at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. What if Dr. King had lived? In this alternate history, Martin Sieff imagines how King might have showed America a different course.

The death of Martin Luther King, on his 85th birthday on January 15, 2014, was solemnly commemorated across the United States and around the world with a flood of tributes.

Yet, so short is historical memory that it is easily forgotten how this now-revered figure retired from the U.S. presidency in 1976 with one of the lowest approval ratings in history.

So revered was King in his final decades as the “Soul of America” around the world that it is also startling and almost inconceivable to remember how close we were to losing him.

A would-be assassin later identified as James Earl Ray, a minor criminal, shot and wounded King in the shoulder in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. That shot changed the course of history, though not in the way the gunman intended.

After King’s friend, Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in a back passage of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan on June 6, 1968, King dramatically threw his hat into the ring in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

King vs. guns: A defining issue

In words that still ring in the memories of hundreds of millions of people, King then declared, “Enough is enough! It is time to end the tyranny of the gun, it is time to defy the conspiracy of fear!”

His entry into the race transformed it. All the supporters of Senator Kennedy, who had just won the crucial California primary before being murdered, flocked to him. “Thank God we still have Dr. King,” a tearful Ethel Kennedy exclaimed. “Without him now, we would face nothing but despair.”

The previous “peace candidate,” Senator Eugene McCarthy of Oregon immediately withdrew from the race and threw his support to Dr. King. “To be honest, I had never liked or trusted poor Bobby Kennedy,” McCarthy recalled decades later. “Had Bobby lived, I would have fought him until the convention.”

Said McCarthy of Kennedy, “His opposition to the Vietnam War was too late, too reluctant and too convenient for me to credit it. But Dr. King was another matter. He has always been a figure of rock-like integrity. I knew that if he were elected on a platform to end the Vietnam War, he would do it.”

Toppling the political establishment

The result was never in doubt. A discredited, and increasingly angry and even hysterical Vice President Hubert Humphrey fought on for the nomination but it was a lost cause. Recognizing the inevitable, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley declared for King.

Humphrey supporters later claimed that they were unceremoniously marginalized and even mishandled by the Chicago police at the triumphal Democratic Party convention that approved King by acclamation.

Daley treated these complaints with indulgent amusement, “Who ever heard of Chicago cops roughing up anybody, especially nice middle class college kids?” he said.

Republican candidate Richard Nixon became a two-time loser. He lost by a landslide and then declared, “Well, I guess I’ve learned my lesson. You boys in the press sure won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. And this time, I mean it”

King’s team of rivals

After the largest and most joyous inauguration in history, King astonished the world once again by selecting Senator Eugene McCarthy as his secretary of state and previous hardliner Henry Kissinger as his national security advisor. (Senator George McGovern of North Dakota became a successful and well-respected Secretary of Defense).

King’s first executive action was to fire J. Edgar Hoover as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (Hoover turned down King’s offer to be US ambassador to Upper Volta).

Kissinger was widely distrusted by Democratic Party insiders. After all, he had previously been working closely with both the Humphrey campaign and with Nixon. But King was adamant. “I only ask of a man honorable actions. I will not judge him on what might have been or what never was,” he famously answered.

Kissinger as a King aide

In the event, Kissinger richly repaid King’s faith in him. He negotiated an end to the Vietnam War within a year. Then, he pioneered a new era of détente with both China and the Soviet Union on behalf of his president.

“I bet you would never have done this for Nixon,” King joked to Kissinger when he became a guest of Mao Zedong as the first American president to visit Beijing in 1972.

King’s first term was a triumph. He is also credited with convincing Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to accept the peace proposal offered by Egypt’s new President Anwar Sadat in 1971. “I would never have trusted or believed Sadat if President King had not endorsed him so strongly,” Mrs. Meir later recalled.

Yom Kippur War — or peace?

It took another two and half years of tortuous negotiation, but finally, in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, most sacred day of the Jewish religious year in 1973, the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty was signed. “We now have a Yom Kippur Peace. The only alternative was a Yom Kippur War,” King said. He was criticized for exaggerating.

Meir and Sadat shared the Nobel Peace Prize. It was widely believed the real credit should go to Dr. King, but with his usual wry humor and self-deprecating modesty he demurred. “I already have two,” he joked, referring to the prize he received in 1970 for ending the Vietnam War. “There isn’t room in my den for another.”

OPEC interrupts

However, like so many other great presidents, King had a vastly more difficult time during his second term of office. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries quadrupled global oil prices in the notorious winter of 1973-74.

Then, in 1975, North Vietnam broke its peace agreement with South Vietnam and overran the South in a blitzkrieg tank campaign.

The fall of Saigon revived the Republicans’ long moribund political fortunes in the United States. “Jerry Ford and I would never have sold out South Vietnam or let Saigon fall!” a reenergized Richard Nixon declared.

He swiftly launched his own third presidential campaign with running mate Rep. Gerald Ford of Michigan. Soaring inflation boosted by the rise in energy prices also fueled domestic discontent and King’s own lame-duck status didn’t help.

Sex and the presidency

King was also damaged when Vice President Edward Kennedy was exposed in a sensational sex scandal by his former lover Mary Jo Kopechne. There were also rumors about King’s alleged dalliances with singing stars Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight.

King’s approval ratings when he left office in January 1977 stood at less than 20%, as low as Harry Truman’s had been in 1952. But like Truman, he was quickly revaluated and his presidential reputation has soared ever since.

Nixon and Iran

King was helped in this by Nixon’s embarrassing failure to prevent the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978 and the 444 day humiliation of US hostages being held there afterwards.

It was only when Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, defeated Nixon for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination and then won the presidency, that the hostages were freed.

King was strongly critical of Reagan’s domestic policies, but the two men shared sunny dispositions and a positive view on life. They became lifelong friends after Reagan’s single term ended.

King’s foundation

It was during the 1980s, as his public standing revived, that King transformed the perception of what retired presidents could and should do. He launched his King Peace Foundation and designed ambitious highly successful programs for urban renewal at home and to end conflicts abroad.

King’s enormous clout and the intellectual expertise he gathered at his foundation in Atlanta is credited with the success of President Jesse Jackson and his young vice president Bill Clinton in passing single-payer universal health care in 1986.

King and his foundation also played a huge role in ensuring the banning of automatic and semi-automatic weapons for private use, the other great accomplishment of the two-term Jackson administration.

A United States on the Enlightenment track

King’s lasting influence ensured a long era of democratic liberal political dominance in the United States. After the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, King played a decisive part in preventing U.S. counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan escalating into a nation-building, permanent presence there, despite heavy pressure on President Al Gore to do so.

“Nation-building is really nation-destroying,” King famously said. “We would destroy Afghanistan and we would also undermine our own country.”

His opposition and criticism also blogged Republican efforts to try and force Gore to order an invasion of Iraq on the basis of alleged connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda that were exposed by King’s Peace Foundation as bogus.

The end

Aged 95, former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, despite poor health, insisted on flying to attend King’s funeral in person. “Thanks to President King we got the end of apartheid in 1972,” he said. “Had it not been for him, we might have had to wait another 20 years for it.”

Today, despite some of his personal failings, King’s stature remains undisputed. Again and again, he showed his own people and the global community a better way to end hatreds and problems. Our world would be unimaginable without him.

“I was a decade older than him. He was taken away from us too soon,” a weeping Nelson Mandela said at the graveside.

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Baltimore Post-Examiner.


King declares, “Enough is enough! It’s time to end the tyranny of the gun, it’s time to defy the conspiracy of fear!”

King made Republican candidate Richard Nixon become a two-time loser.

King left office in January 1977 with approval ratings less than 20%, as low as Harry Truman’s had been in 1952.

King & Reagan shared a positive view on life. They became lifelong friends after Reagan’s term ended.

Imagine an America where single-payer universal health care was passed in 1986.

King warned Gore: “Nation-building is nation-destroying. We would destroy Afghanistan and undermine our own country.”

We got the end of apartheid in 1972. Had it not been for King, we might have had to wait another 20 years.