Candor for Dr. King

With the passing of another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we find the standard bromides about promoting a color-blind society and realizing the "Dream." (Last year saw a "Redeem the Dream March.") The holiday is so much hollow hagiography, validating the great Ambrose Bierce's definition of applause: "The echo of a platitude."

Samuel Francis wrote over a decade ago that King "has been promoted to full fellowship in the national pantheon," and today he is arguably its preeminent member. Even more than Abraham Lincoln, criticism of King is a secular heresy.

To understate the case, King's advocacy and legacy don't embody libertarian-conservative tenets. He extolled the student sit-ins that conflated trespassing with advancing justice and successfully sought to nationalize emasculation of proprietary rights at the expense of organically designed decentralization. Given the "Persuasion that freedom and property are inseparably connected" is one of Russell Kirk's six canons of conservative thought, King was a decidedly un-conservative and more accurately anti-conservative individual. (Contemporary conservatives' affection for King is a ludicrous phenomenon I won't get into here.)

King, however, is a sanitized saint. Michael Eric Dyson's recent I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. examines his parochial lionization. (Dyson is a self-described "radical democrat" affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America.)

Refreshingly, Dyson recognizes that King had radical conceptions and devotes a chapter to his "Progressive Social Blueprint." It is impossible to read this section and maintain King was programmatically conservative or simply a Great Society reformer. (The latter would have been sufficiently bad.) He came to endorse social democracy with increasing ardor and openness, speaking of redistributive policies and "restructuring the whole of American society" in his 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference presidential address. (This followed a 1966 speech where he said, "There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.")

This isn't news to libertarians and conscious conservatives. There exists a clear nexus between the explicit radicalism of King's last years and his earlier encouragement of activism via trespassing (the sit-ins) and compulsory association (Titles II and VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act).

Nay, King's partisans might object, he criticized Leninist methodology and wrote that "communism reduces men to a cog in the wheel of the state" (an excellent evaluation of the totalitarian creed). To call him a social democrat or socialist thus distorts his political philosophy.

The fact is that King rejected capitalism and Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy alike. He said in the 1967 SCLC address, "[T]he kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both." This is in the mode of the Third Way, social democracy being the "higher synthesis." (Social democracy's objective, of course, is socialism.)

That King was a "certified plagiarist and adulterer of Clintonian proportions" (Debra Dickerson) is one aspect of his suppressed character. King's counter-constitutional efforts to assail private discretion and advance a socialist polity are more significantly suppressed. His legacy deserves more candor.

January 18, 2001

Myles Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.