Martin Luther King
There is probably no greater sacred cow in America than
Martin Luther King Jr. The slightest criticism of him or even
suggesting that he isn’t deserving of a national holiday leads to
the usual accusations of racist, fascism, and the rest of the usual
left-wing epithets not only from liberals, but also from many
ostensible conservatives and libertarians.
is amazing because during the 50s and 60s, the Right almost
unanimously opposed the civil rights movement. Contrary to the
claims of many neocons, the opposition was not limited to the John Birch
Society and southern conservatives. It was made by politicians
like Ronald Reagan and Barry
Goldwater, and in the pages of Modern Age, Human Events,
Review, and the
Today, the official conservative and libertarian movement
portrays King as someone on our side who would be fighting Jesse
Jackson and Al Sharpton if he were alive. Most all conservative
publications and websites have articles around this time of the year
praising King and discussing how today’s civil rights leaders are
betraying his legacy. Jim Powell’s otherwise excellent The
Triumph of Liberty rates King next to Ludwig von Mises and
Albert J. Nock as a libertarian hero. Attend any IHS seminar, and
you’ll read "A letter from a Birmingham Jail" as a great piece of
anti-statist wisdom. The Heritage Foundation regularly has lectures
and symposiums honoring his legacy. There are nearly a half dozen
neocon and left-libertarian think tanks and legal foundations with
names such as "The Center for Equal Opportunity" and the "American
Civil Rights Institute" which claim to model themselves after King.
is a man once reviled by the Right now celebrated by it as a hero?
The answer partly lies in the fact that the mainstream Right has
gradually moved to the left since King’s death. The influx of many
neoconservative intellectuals, many of whom were involved in the
civil rights movement, into the conservative movement also
contributes to the King phenomenon. This does not fully explain the
picture, because on many issues King was far to the left of even the
neoconservatives, and many King admirers even claim to adhere to
principles like freedom of association and federalism. The main
reason is that they have created a mythical Martin Luther King Jr.,
that they constructed solely from one line in his "I Have a Dream"
this article, I will try to dispel the major myths that the
conservative movement has about King. I found a good deal of the
information for this piece in I
May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King by
black leftist Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson shows that King supported
black power, reparations, affirmative action, and socialism. He
believes this made King even more admirable. He also deals frankly
with King’s philandering and plagiarism, though he excuses them. If
you don’t mind reading his long discussions about gangsta rap and
the like, I strongly recommend this book.
Myth #1: King wanted only equal rights, not special
privileges and would have opposed affirmative action, quotas,
reparations, and the other policies pursued by today’s civil rights
is probably the most repeated myth about King. Writing on National
Review Online, There Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding wrote a
piece entitled "Martin
Luther King’s Conservative Mind," where he wrote, "An agenda
that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides takes us away
from King's vision."
with this view is that King openly advocated quotas and racial
set-asides. He wrote that the "Negro today is not struggling for
some abstract, vague rights, but for concrete improvement in his way
of life." When equal opportunity laws failed to achieve this, King
looked for other ways. In his book Where
Do We Go From Here, he suggested that "A society that has
done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must
now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just
and equal basis." To do this he expressed support for quotas. In a
1968 Playboy interview, he said, "If a city has a 30% Negro
population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at
least 30% of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all
categories rather than only in menial areas." King was more than
just talk in this regard. Working through his Operation Breadbasket,
King threatened boycotts of businesses that did not hire blacks in
proportion to their population.
King was even an early proponent of reparations. In his 1964
We Can’t Wait, he wrote,
amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the
exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through
the centuries…Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient
common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of a
the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to
apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a
massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures
which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the
accepted practice of common law.
Predicting that critics would note that many whites were
equally disadvantaged, King claimed that his program, which he
called the "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged" would help poor
whites as well. This is because once the blacks received
reparations, the poor whites would realize that their real enemy was
Myth # 2: King was an American patriot, who tried to get
Americans to live up to their founding ideals.
National Review, Roger Clegg wrote
that "There may have been a brief moment when there existed
something of a national consensus – a shared vision eloquently
articulated in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech,
with deep roots in the American Creed, distilled in our national
motto, E pluribus unum. Most Americans still share it, but by
no means all." Many other conservatives have embraced this idea of
an American Creed that built upon Jefferson and Lincoln, and was
then fulfilled by King and libertarians like Clint Bolick and
neocons like Bill Bennett.
Despite his constant invocations of the Declaration of
Independence, King did not have much pride in America’s founding. He
believed "our nation was born in genocide," and claimed that the
Declaration of Independence and Constitution were meaningless for
blacks because they were written by slave owners.
Myth # 3: King was a Christian activist whose struggle for
civil rights is similar to the battles fought by the Christian Right
Ralph Reed claims that King’s "indispensable genius" provided
"the vision and leadership that renewed and made crystal clear the
vital connection between religion and politics." He proudly admitted
that the Christian Coalition "adopted many elements of King’s style
and tactics." The pro-life group, Operation Rescue, often compared
their struggle against abortion to King’s struggle against
segregation. In a speech entitled The Conservative Virtues of Dr.
Martin Luther King, Bill Bennet described
King, as "not primarily a social activist, he was primarily a
minister of the Christian faith, whose faith informed and directed
his political beliefs."
King’s public stands and personal behavior makes the comparison
between King and the Religious Right questionable.
surveillance showed that King had dozens of extramarital affairs.
Although many of the pertinent records are sealed, several agents
who watched observed him engage in many questionable acts including
buying prostitutes with SCLC money. Ralph Abernathy, who King called
"the best friend I have in the world," substantiated many of these
charges in his autobiography, And
the Walls Came Tumbling Down. It is true that a man’s
private life is mostly his business. However, most conservatives
vehemently condemned Jesse Jackson when news of his illegitimate son
came out, and claimed he was unfit to be a minister.
also took stands that most in the Christian Right would disagree
with. When asked about the Supreme Court’s decision to ban school
prayer, King responded,
endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said,
it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in god. In a
pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer
shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise,
the state certainly has no such right.
While King died before the Roe vs. Wade decision, and, to the
best of my knowledge, made no comments on abortion, he was an ardent
supporter of Planned Parenthood. He even won their Margaret Sanger
Award in 1966 and had his wife give a speech entitled Family
Planning – A Special and Urgent Concern which he wrote. In the
speech, he did not compare the civil rights movement to the struggle
of Christian Conservatives, but he did say "there is a striking
kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early
Myth # 4: King was an anti-communist.
another article about Martin Luther King, Roger Clegg of National
King for speaking out against the "oppression of communism!" To gain
the support of many liberal whites, in the early years, King did
make a few mild denunciations of communism. He also claimed in a
1965 Playboy that there "are as many Communists in this
freedom movement as there are Eskimos in Florida." This was a
bald-faced lie. Though King was never a Communist and was always
critical of the Soviet Union, he had knowingly surrounded himself with
Communists. His closest advisor Stanley Levison was a Communist, as
was his assistant Jack O’Dell. Robert and later John F. Kennedy
repeatedly warned him to stop associating himself with such
subversives, but he never did. He frequently spoke before Communist
front groups such as the National Lawyers Guild and Lawyers for
Democratic Action. King even attended seminars at The Highlander
Folk School, another Communist front, which taught Communist
tactics, which he later employed.
King’s sympathy for communism may have contributed to his
opposition to the Vietnam War, which he characterized as a racist,
imperialistic, and unjust war. King claimed that America "had
committed more war crimes than any nation in the world." While he
acknowledged the NLF "may not be paragons of virtue," he never
criticized them. However, he was rather harsh on Diem and the South.
He denied that the NLF was communist, and believed that Ho Chi Minh
should have been the legitimate ruler of Vietnam. As a committed
globalist, he believed that "our loyalties must transcend our race,
our tribe, our class, and our nation. This means we must develop a
of King’s conservative admirers have no problem calling anyone who
questions American foreign policy a "fifth columnist." While I
personally agree with King on some of his stands on Vietnam, it is
hypocritical for those who are still trying to get Jane Fonda tried
for sedition to applaud King.
Myth # 5: King supported the free market.
you don’t hear this too often, but it happens. For example, Father
Robert A. Sirico delivered a paper to the Acton Institute entitled
Rights and Social Cooperation. In it, he wrote,
freer economy would take us closer to the ideals of the pioneers in
this country's civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr.
recognized this when he wrote: "With the growth of industry the
folkways of white supremacy will gradually pass away," and he
predicted that such growth would "Increase the purchasing power of
the Negro [which in turn] will result in improved medical care,
greater educational opportunities, and more adequate housing. Each
of these developments will result in a further weakening of
of course was a great opponent of the free economy. In a speech in
front of his staff in 1966 he said,
can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without
talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the
slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re
really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are
messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry…
Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it
really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with
capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe
America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.
called for "totally restructuring the system" in a way that was not
capitalist or "the antithesis of communist." For more information on
King’s economic views, see Lew Rockwell’s The
Economics of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Myth # 6: King was a conservative.
all the previous myths show, King’s views were hardly conservative.
If this was not enough, it is worth noting what King said about the
two most prominent postwar American conservative politicians, Ronald
Reagan and Barry Goldwater.
accused Barry Goldwater of "Hitlerism." He believed
that Goldwater advocated a "narrow nationalism, a crippling
isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude." On domestic issues he
felt that "Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism
that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth
century." King said that Goldwater’s positions on civil rights were
"morally indefensible and socially suicidal."
said of Reagan, "When a Hollywood performer, lacking distinction
even as an actor, can become a leading war hawk candidate for the
presidency, only the irrationalities induced by war psychosis can
explain such a turn of events."
Despite King’s harsh criticisms of those men, both supported
the King holiday. Goldwater even fought to keep King’s FBI files,
which contained information about his adulterous sex life and
Communist connections, sealed.
Myth # 7: King wasn’t a plagiarist.
even most of the neocons won’t deny this, but it is still worth
bringing up, because they all ignore it. King started plagiarizing
as an undergraduate. When Boston University founded a commission to
look into it, they found that that 45 percent of the first part and
21 percent of the second part of his dissertation was stolen, but
they insisted that "no thought should be given to revocation of Dr.
King’s doctoral degree." In addition to his dissertation many of his
major speeches, such as "I Have a Dream," were plagiarized, as were
many of his books and writings. For more information on King’s
plagiarism, The Martin
Luther King Plagiarism Page and Theodore Pappas’ Plagiarism
and the Culture War are excellent resources.
faced with these facts, most of King’s conservative and libertarian
fans either say they weren’t part of his main philosophy, or usually
they simply ignore them. Slightly before the King Holiday was signed
into law, Governor Meldrim Thompson of New Hampshire wrote a letter
to Ronald Reagan expressing concerns about King’s morality and
Communist connections. Ronald Reagan responded, "I have the
reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is
based on an image, not reality. Indeed, to them the perception
too many on the Right are worshipping that perception. Rather than
face the truth about King’s views, they create a man based upon a
few lines about judging men "by the content of their character
rather than the color of their skin" – something we are not supposed
to do in his case, of course – while ignoring everything else he
said and did. If King is truly an admirable figure, they are doing
his legacy a disservice by using his name to promote an agenda he
clearly would not have supported.
January 18, 2003
[send him mail] is an undergraduate at the
College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, where he is
president of the college libertarians and editor of the conservative
newspaper, The Remnant. A selection of his
articles can be seen here.
Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com