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As He Was


Among the stranger phenomena of historical memory in recent decades has been the recasting of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a conservative. This appropriation is mostly based on two things. First is his religious rhetoric, which implies an automatic equation of such rhetoric with the right (in fairness, the modern left does little to negate this assumption). Second, and more significant, is his famous line from the 1963 March on Washington:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Based upon this single line, conservatives have rushed to claim Martin Luther King, Jr., as one of their own. Heritage Foundation scholar Carolyn Garris, in the course of an essay proclaiming that “King’s message was fundamentally conservative,” asserts that “King wanted his children to live in a colorblind society.” We also read that MLK “dreamed of a color-blind society” in a 2002 essay by another Heritage scholar, Matthew Spalding. Edwin Locke of the Ayn Rand Institute declares that “[w]hat has happened in the years following King’s murder [with regard to the attainment of a colorblind society in America] is the opposite of the ‘I Have a Dream’ quote.” Paul Greenberg of Townhall refers to the 1963 speech and argues that its intent and content means that “Martin Luther King Jr. emerges as an American conservative.” Ward Connerly has time and again invoked King in support of his anti-affirmative action crusade. And William Bennett, who ought to know better (and who, to his credit, suffered physical harm in the civil rights crusades of the 1960s), states: “If you said in 1968 that you should judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, that you should be color-blind, you were a liberal. If you say it now, you are a conservative. It is in that sense that Martin Luther King today is a conservative.”

Every one of these assertions is wrong.

Taken out of context and without reference to its speaker, the dream of a nation where children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is a plausibly conservative one. But that is mere rhetoric: taking it on its own has as much relevance to history as does taking seriously a 2002 assurance by the Bush Administration that every means was sought to avoid war with Iraq. The words mean one thing in themselves: the man and his intent are something else.

The truth is that MLK’s mission in life was not a “colorblind” society but a just society. He sought his version of “just,” of course — and that assuredly included the racial preferences that conservatives wishing to appropriate King universally detest. His interview with Alex Haley in Playboy made that much clear:

PLAYBOY: Do you feel it’s fair to request a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro, or for any other minority group?

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages — potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest….

PLAYBOY: If a nationwide program of preferential employment for Negroes were to be adopted, how would you propose to assuage the resentment of whites who already feel that their jobs are being jeopardized by the influx of Negroes resulting from desegregation?

MARTIN LUTHER KING: We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining and jobs for all — so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened….

That interview was conducted in 1964 and published in January 1965. Joel Schwartz, who subscribes to a modified version of King-as-conservative, identifies this period as that in which the old, conservative King gave way to a new, leftist King. Here at last we have a conservative claim to MLK that is somewhat defensible: but it too does not, in the end, withstand scrutiny. Few scholars of King without ideological axes to grind find an obvious discontinuity in his thought between pre- and post-1964/1965. More important, Schwartz ignores King’s 1956 “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” in which King has a fictionalized Apostle Paul denounce the consequences of capitalism. (MLK also uses this piece to deliver the sort of small-minded swipe at Roman Catholicism one would expect from a lesser Southern Protestant.) Clearly the moral qualities of social structures were live issues for King for most of his public career.

In any case, we do not find that MLK ever ascribed particular moral weight to the agent of an action. His concern was with the moral quality of the action per se: charity from the parishioner and charity from the state thus became de facto moral equals in his formulation. So too did he regularly note that the white “moderate” was more of an enemy than the Klansman. If Schwartz is correct that King’s focus shifted at some point from individual or community action to state action, then the change was surely a pragmatic one that reflected not a change in basic philosophy from “liberal” to “conservative,” but an assessment of the needs of the moment — and the power of King’s own burgeoning renown.

King’s renown assuredly informed his belief in himself and his mission, as exemplified not simply by his increasing embrace of statist solutions to the problems he identified, but also by his very identification of those problems. The crusader for civil rights embraced a widening circle of left-wing causes, putting him on a trajectory that if not interrupted by assassination would have certainly seen him solidly on the American left in later decades.

MLK’s commitment to statist solutions, and his definitive identification with the left, are evident in his 4 April 1967 “A Time to Break Silence” speech against the Vietnam War, delivered exactly one year before his assassination. He was quite clear that the wellspring of his opposition to that war was his perception that its demands on resources and energy were diversions from the Great Society:

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

It is impossible to read this speech, as with so many MLK speeches, without being struck by its turns of phrase: notably here King’s denunciation of “a morbid fear of communism,” echoed one decade later by Jimmy Carter’s “inordinate fear of communism.” The echo may have been an unconscious one — as a former speechwriter, I know full well how obscure their inspirations and sourcings can be — but it is nonetheless an echo, and telling for that.

Squaring this speech with conservatism is impossible. The conception of the state as the arbiter of social change is not conservative. The conception of resources as zero-sum is not conservative. (Certainly LBJ’s spending did not reflect this belief.) The parroting of Communist hagiography further in the speech — denounced at the time by mainstream media — is not conservative. The conception of social change as the prime and superseding activity of American governance is not conservative.

Yet all these un-conservative things were deeply-held beliefs of Martin Luther King. Add in the rest. Add in the evidence already discussed; add in his involvement with causes like the Poor People’s Campaign; add in the promotion of public-employee unions he was engaged in when he died; and add in his personal failings. He was a plagiarist. He was a base philanderer. He was a willing transmitter of Communist and defeatist memes in one of our nation’s darker hours. He was a regular columnist for The Nation.

Do all that, and then make the case that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a conservative. Certainly he said a conservative thing or two; and he made the case for a religious, objective morality that, while appealing to conservatives, he used for non-conservative ends. He was never a conservative, and he would have loathed being identified as one in the modern day. Though the things that place him outside conservatism are assuredly faults, he was nonetheless singularly right on the singular issue of his era. It is that which makes MLK-as-non-conservative a reproach not merely to him, but equally to conservatives — no matter how much they wish to pretend otherwise.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 5:59 AM | Permalink

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