MLK a Conservative? Not Even Close
'Capitalism forgets that life is social,' said the famous right-wing civil rights leader
Pat McCrory, Civil Rights scholar, on the lasting legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“All North Carolinians stand on the shoulders of what was accomplished 50 years ago today at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. We must keep Dr. Martin Luther King’s words alive, not by merely hearing or reciting them, but by transforming them into deeds that will create economic and educational opportunities for all. We must work together to create jobs, expand educational opportunities that will train and retrain our workforce, and lower the tax burden on our families to encourage more first-time homeowners and entrepreneurs whose success will stabilize our communities.”
Today is the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, and you heard that correctly — the dream, according to our governor, had a tax relief plank.
This is nonsense, of course. But it’s good marketing, part of a larger effort among conservatives to co-opt King’s legacy — by, in part, accusing liberals of co-opting King’s legacy — and painting the man who died supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis into a kind of proto-Herman Cain.
The movement swung into action several years back, around the time when a Heritage Foundation staffer wrote a piece that began, “It is time for conservatives to lay claim to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” on the grounds that King was a Christian and believed in a moral code. (“Modern liberalism has rebuffed this teaching, dedicating great effort to silence religion and morality,” Carolyn Garris actually wrote.)
On the campaign goes. It relies on a willful distortion of what King actually stood for and a reduction of his legacy to one quote from “I Have a Dream” whose meaning right-wingers have warped beyond recognition. You know the one.
“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.”
It’s possible to read this sentence, devoid of context, as an indictment of race-based programs such as affirmative action and of the “racist” acknowledgement that African-Americans’ history in America was fundamentally different from that of white people. It is also possible to view Jesus’ throwing of the moneychangers out of the temple as proof positive that he had something of an anger management problem.
‘Americans deluded by myths’
King said a few other things in that speech. Here’s one.
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
Today, King would be pilloried as a “race-baiter” on The O’Reilly Factor. (Can’t you just see it? “Now this King talks about bad checks — I wonder how many he’s written? Has this guy ever created any jobs?”) Here’s another inconvenient excerpt taken from a November 1964 Saturday Evening Post essay titled “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast”:
“For some Americans deluded by myths, the candidacy of a (Barry) Goldwater* seemed a solution to their ills. Essentially he identified big government, radicalism and bureaucracy as the cause of all evils. Civil-rights legislation, in his view, is not a social necessity — it is merely oppressive big government. He ignored the towering presence of discrimination and segregation but vividly exaggerated crime in the streets. The poverty of the Negroes, he implied is due to want of ambition and industry. The picture that emerged to delight the racist was that of undeserving, shiftless, criminally dangerous radicals who have manipulated government for their selfish ends, but whose grievances are largely fanciful, and will wither away if left to the states.”
‘The triple evils’
So, what, was King a socialist? Not exactly; he understood the value of profit and industry, but he was no free-market purist (excerpt from the “Where Do We Go From Here” speech below; quote begins at 6:15):
“What I’m saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis … that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say, ‘questioning the whole society,’ it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
Martin Luther King wasn’t just about peace, love, brotherhood and the contents of our character. He saw the problems of the day — the problems of this day — quite clearly, and as someone who recognized the vast disparities in race and class and the predilection for war that contributed to a society’s sickness. He was no conservative — as, 30 years ago, the most prominent conservative in North Carolina history recognized on the floor of the U.S. Senate:
“I think most Americans would feel that the participation of Marxists in the planning and direction of any movement taints that movement at the outset … Others may argue that Dr. King’s thought may have been merely Marxist in its orientation. But the trouble with that is that Marxism-Leninism, the official philosophy of communism, is an action-oriented revolutionary doctrine. And Dr. King’s action-oriented Marxism, about which he was cautioned by the leaders of this country, including the president at that time, is not compatible with the concepts of this country.”
Jesse Helms was rebuked quickly by a fellow Republican Senator, Bob Dole: “To those who would worry about cost, I would suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.”
Amazing. Not only was Martin Luther King Jr. a staunch conservative — Bob Dole was a divisive race-baiter. The things you learn.
*The longtime Arizona senator and father of modern-day conservatism, whom Lyndon Johnson had just defeated in the presidential election.