Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Fifty Years Later: Martin Luther King in Alternate History


To mark the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, I thought it would be worth reflecting on how he has been portrayed in works of alternate history. 

More often than not, commentators have employed “fast forward” counterfactuals. This kind of counterfactual advances the tape of history and imagines how the later occurrence of historical events would have affected their significance. This method has commonly been applied to the lives of key historic individuals, usually by pushing back the date of their death.   


How would King be viewed today if he had lived a longer life?

One hypothesis is that he would have moved in a more radical political direction  
In his book, The Radical King, Cornel West has written:



Had he lived longer, he would have been able to devote more time to fighting issues relating to both class and race.  This would have made him more controversial and his legacy might be less hallowed.   He might never have had a holiday named for him.

In his essay, “Afterword: Interview with Dr. King on his 80th Birthday,” published in April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America (New York, 2009), Michael Eric Dyson declared:


Similarly, Bill Shipp, in his essay, “What Would Dr. King Think of His Dream Now?” in: The Ape-slayer and Other Snapshots: A Collection of Random Writings, remarked:


It is hard to imagine viewing King as anything but a martyred hero, but fast forward counterfactuals make clear that an individual’s significance depends profoundly on the temporal vantage point from which it is assessed.  A longer life usually means more opportunities for failure; a life cut short, by contrast, evokes missed opportunities and chances never taken advantage of.

Another method of portraying MLK in alternate history was visible in Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove’s novel, The Two Georges (1996).  


It depicts King serving as the governor general of the North American Union (NAU) from its capital city of Victoria (present day Washington D. C.).  In this alternate world, the NAU is a product of the 1760s, when the American colonies are able to reconcile with the British monarchy and avoid seceding from England.  George Washington and George III cemented a longstanding relationship and the former agrees to the latter’s request for the NAU to remain part of the British empire. 

In this world, the British abolish slavery in the 1830s, thereby allowing African Americans like King to enjoy upward mobility into the ranks of the NAU elite. As I have written elsewhere, the novel is a fantasy scenario that portrays the failure of the American Revolution having positive consequences for American history – certainly in the realm of race relations.  

The novel was written against the bleak backdrop of (and was an allegorical commentary on) the LA riots of 1992 and the rise of the racist militia movement. 

I’m curious whether any commentators today will mark the anniversary of King’s death by reflecting counterfactually on the topic from a present-day perspective informed by Black Lives Matter, the Alt-Right, and the Trump administration.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for these links and insights. I added a link to this in my piece, "If Martin Luther King had not been assassinated" https://byaslenderthread.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/if-martin-luther-king-had-not-been-assassinated-1/

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