Myths of Martin Luther King

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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
, and in the pages of Modern Age, Human Events,
National Review,
and the Freeman.

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" speech.

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.

#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 leadership.

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."

The problem
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.

was even an early proponent of reparations. In his 1964 book, Why
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.

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 rich whites.

# 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.

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.

# 3: King was a Christian activist whose struggle for civil rights
is similar to the battles fought by the Christian Right today.

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.

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 efforts."

# 4: King was an anti-communist.

another article about Martin Luther King, Roger Clegg of National
Review applauds
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.

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 world perspective.”

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.

# 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 segregation."

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
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."

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,

# 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 is

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.

18, 2003

Epstein [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


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