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.
This 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, National Review, and the Freeman.
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.
Why 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.
In 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 leadership.
This 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.
King was even an early proponent of reparations. In his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, he wrote, No 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 rich whites.
Myth # 2: King was an American patriot, who tried to get Americans to live up to their founding ideals.
In 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 today.
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."
Both King's public stands and personal behavior makes the comparison between King and the Religious Right questionable.
FBI 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.
King 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,
I 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 efforts."
Myth # 4: King was an anti-communist.
In 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.
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 world perspective.”
Many 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.
OK, you don't hear this too often, but it happens. For example, Father Robert A. Sirico delivered a paper to the Acton Institute entitled Civil Rights and Social Cooperation. In it, he wrote,
A 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."
King of course was a great opponent of the free economy. In a speech in front of his staff in 1966 he said,
You 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.
King 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.
As 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.
King 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."
King 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.
OK, 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.
When 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 reality.”
Far 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