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MLK Was No “Conservative”

October 16, 2009

As much as I hate to take issue with my colleagues here, it is hyperbolic to call Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a “conservative.” It is true King was no New Left radical. He had little use for Malcolm X and in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” he famously denounced “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” But King’s views before his antiwar speech were left-of-center, for his day or ours. King believed in a guaranteed annual  income, opposed Vietnam well before 1967, and, “content of their character” notwithstanding, voiced support for some form of racial preferences.

Perhaps most to the point is King’s support for the government’s guaranteeing everyone a minimum — but not minimal — salary…

King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? “I am now convinced…the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” But “to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure” it “must be pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income” and “must automatically increase as the total social income grows.” So far, his proposal was not materially different from Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth program. This was from his later works, but he had voiced support for “a modified form of socialism” for some time. While accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King told the press, “We feel we have much to learn from Scandinavia’s democratic socialist tradition and from the manner in which you have overcome many of the social and economic problems that still plague far more powerful and affluent nations.”

It’s somewhat cynical to attribute King’s opposition to the war only to the flagging fortunes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC went through dark days, especially following King’s unsuccessful Chicago campaign and seeming inability to crack northern cities, but King had spoken out against the war years before his  “Beyond Vietnam” speech. In March 1965, he offered to write a letter to all parties, including the Soviet Union, to come to a peace negotiation, and he asked President Johnson to halt the bombing. He added:  “The war in Vietnam is accomplishing nothing…We certainly are not winning the war.” For two years, he moderated himself, mindful of his standing in Washington. According to numerous biographers, King’s decided to take a more strident role on Vietnam after seeing a photo essay entitled “The Children of Vietnam” contained in the January 1967 issue of Ramparts.

By 1968, he had climbed so far out on a ledge that he was approached about running as a third party candidate through Stanley Levison (who did, in fact, have Communist associates, although some question his relationship with them). William Sloane Coffin, who was by then already infamous, and perennial Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas broached the topic to Levison, and King termed the prospect “an interesting idea.” Although he turned them down, King entertained offers seriously enough to concern LBJ (which, by 1968, took precious little effort). King’s proposed running mate, Dr. Benjamin Spock, would run for president in 1972 as the candidate of the People’s Party/Peace and Freedom Party.

King is today regarded as “conservative” primarily for three things: not being a Communist, not being Malcolm X, and declaring men should be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This criterion has rightly been cited as incompatible with racial preference programs like Affirmative Action. However, King also voiced support for such programs. One of the pundits at the invaluable Hot Air blog has collected several quotations showing King’s support for race preferences:

  • “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.”
  • “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”; and
  • “Within common law we have ample precedents for special compensatory programs.”

In all, King’s political views were left-of-center in any context. However, he also emphasized the importance of family, work, determination, and (yes) faith. He once said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lives a great street sweeper who did his job well.” Blacks liberated from Jim Crow are no better off if they neglect their intellect or development because cultivating it would mean “acting white”; indeed, the primary thrust of the civil rights movement of his day was gaining access to equal education funds. Politics aside, he championed self-reliance in a way that is today thought of as “conservative.”

Tearing down the edifice of Jim Crow and segregation was itself a profoundly anti-statist move. The state power necessary to enforce the Negro Codes hardly result in a laissez-faire institution.

The principles of integration, for which King died, are best preserved by conservatives. His color-blind society is the bane of those who anointed themselves with his blood but have sought to keep the various components of the Rainbow Coalition as distinct, and powerless, as possible. MLK’s dream was a world where skin color was irrelevant; for the Left, it is the only relevant factor. William Bennett summed it up best: “If you said in 1968 that you should judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, that you should be color-blind, you were a liberal. If you say it now, you are a conservative. It is in that sense that Martin Luther King today is a conservative.”

King called America to give non-whites a full share in the American dream, always believing what was wrong with America could be cured by what was right with America. He wrote that America’s founders were great men in some respects, e.g. their support of the Bill of Rights, but not great in others, such as slavery. I feel that way about Martin Luther King. I agree, in other words, with Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “Then and now, I think it possible and necessary to make a crucial, albeit not unambiguous, distinction between the very broken earthen vessel and the treasure of truth that vessel contained and so powerfully communicated.”

  1. October 16, 2009 6:33 am

    I believe that Dr. King was trying to please the people he was courting. In those days, he had a lot of Black Separatists with him, as well as Christian groups. The mixture of those came together in what is called “Liberation Theology” today. I believe Dr. King was trying to do the right thing, he was just heavely influenced by those seeking their own agenda, that’s why he was always conflicted. He had a heavy burden. He wanted to do the right thing, but the radical blacks wanted him to do more. He was the VOICE to all Black people, and everyone wanted him to speak for them.

  2. Paul Cooper permalink
    October 16, 2009 8:03 am

    It’s rare to see such level of research on a blog. I haven’t looked at all the data myself, but you make a strong argument.

  3. David Thomson permalink
    October 16, 2009 10:00 am

    “If you say it now, you are a conservative. It is in that sense that Martin Luther King today is a conservative.”

    That’s kind of nice—but nowhere near good enough. This criterion significantly lowers the bar. We should also be thankful that Martin Luther King, Jr. rejected the violent behavior of the radical leftists. Still, it does not justify describing him as some sort of conservative! At the end of the day, King was a naive socialist who had every intention to turn the United States into some sort of socialist utopia. He was blunt and unambiguous about his ultimate aims. You do not have to take the word of either Ben Johnson or myself. The heck with what we have to say. One only needs to obtain a copy of MLK’s own essays edited by Clayborne Carson entitled, The Autobiography Of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s all in there.

    • kimsegar permalink
      October 17, 2009 8:54 am

      Your right and I could fill you in on more. but…I will let sleeping dogs lie..but I live by,,fool me once, shame on you. fool me twice, shame on me…common sense is gone, so is truth. people don’t know and have never heard true history, and it is so watered down in schools that they will never get the truth…

  4. David Forsmark permalink
    October 16, 2009 10:49 am

    Great post as usual, Ben!

  5. David Thomson permalink
    October 16, 2009 11:22 am

    Martin Luther King, Jr. did an enormous amount of good during the civil rights marches in the Deep South. As matter of fact, this is the era usually cited by conservatives who wish to say good things about him. These same well-meaning people, however, then proceed to pretend that King’s later anti-anti Communism and outright advocacy of socialism never occurred. King’s popularity was waning at the time of his death. I am personally convinced that he would have become a marginalized figure by the early 1970s. When everything is said and done, MLK’s reputation—and influence was saved by his assassination. He was vastly more valuable to the leftist community as a dead martyr than a live activist.

    • David Thomson permalink
      October 16, 2009 2:54 pm

      Some people might feel uneasy about my assertion that Martin Luther King, Jr. was more useful to the leftist community dead than alive. It might therefore behoove one to visit the Gallup website:

      “In the years leading up to his death in 1968, however, King did not appear often among the top 10 on Gallup’s most admired list.”

    • Fritz Becker permalink
      October 16, 2009 10:19 pm

      At the time “Democratic Socialism” was viewed as a viable third way, between free market capitalism and Communism, to reduce the disparities in society, he wasn’t alone in this thinking. After “Democratic Socialism” was proven to be a failure perhaps he would have come to the same conclusion like many have since? Likewise many in hindsight came to believe that their opposition to the Vietnam war was misguided, particularly when the slaughter that followed it started. He seemed like a fairly well reasoned man, reasoned men do change their opinions when proven wrong. Anyhow hindsight is 20/20, history consists of what happened not what may have happened, so it’s only a guess as to how Dr. King would have reacted to the events of the decades since that time.

  6. Jack Hampton permalink
    October 16, 2009 12:18 pm

    Superb Mr. Johnson I read the Edited Essays by Carson while I was in Alaska and I have to agree. There are many controversial things about MLK that we will never see. Many in the future will. But we will be gone. How I would love to read those reports.

  7. Skypilott2 permalink
    October 17, 2009 5:58 am

    King was a plagiarist, communist-sympathizer, and adulterer, all the while pretending to be some holy man concerned with plight of the Negro.

    Funny thing how he was considered to be the ‘king’ of non-violent protest, yet violence seemed to show up wherever he went.

    There is a very simple truth that many people simply fail to grasp:
    integration is the end of diversity, the very thing the multiculturists profess as a goal.

    One cannot understand King merely by reading what he said. A much clearer picture of the man emerges from studying his actions, instead.

  8. Jonathan permalink
    October 17, 2009 12:03 pm

    You said:

    “Tearing down the edifice of Jim Crow and segregation was itself a profoundly anti-statist move. The state power necessary to enforce the Negro Codes hardly result in a laissez-faire institution”

    I think you need to rethink this statement. Jim Crow and segregation WERE statist artificialities introduced to accomplish a political agenda, so tearing them down can hardly be “anti-statist.” In fact, its probably one of the few times this government has torn down a harmful institution of its own making.

    The bottom line is that this ticking time bomb in the American psyche was created by the government, fostered and enabled by it, and then inadequately mitigated by it. The American government has done nothing BUT screw up this issue since 1776. Statist? It’s not statism with the state does something to diminsh statism. Especially statism that violates the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the law of God to boot, not necessarily in that order.

    • Jonathan permalink
      October 17, 2009 12:06 pm

      Oops. My bad. I seem to not be able to read correctly today. Ben said the opposite of what I implied he said, and that means we are in agreement. Sorry Ben.

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