This afternoon, America will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Another march is scheduled to be held in Washington, and in the days leading up, politicians and commentators have weighed in Dr. King’s tremendous legacy, the American civil rights tradition, and what lessons from the great man’s life can be applied to modern-day politics.
Oh, and it turns out that King was actually a political conservative, one who, were he alive today, would be totally appalled at the actions of liberals and African-Americans in general, especially the first black president.
That’s what we heard from many corners of the right on the occasion, and really for the last several years: The revisionist history that King, because he was a religious leader, spoke about judging people “by the content of their character” and, I guess, wasn’t as radical as Malcolm X and others who followed him, was actually conservative. Every Martin Luther King Day, or on the milestone anniversaries of the March, there’s usually a round of right-wing op-eds arguing for MLK the Secret Right-Winger, like this one, this one and this one.
A niece of Dr. King, Alveda King, has claimed over the years that her uncle was Republican, conservative, and anti-abortion, but these claims have been discounted with near-unanimity by historians and other members of King’s family. Glenn Beck, in an act that would be totally disgraceful if it weren’t so unintentionally hilarious, a few years ago reenacted the March on Washington while implicitly crowing himself King’s heir.
All of this is, of course, nonsense. Dr. Martin Luther King was a man of the political left. There’s absolutely no ambiguity about this. He fought for major, radical social change, and against the status quo.
With vanishingly few exceptions, King’s supporters were liberals and his opponents were conservatives. The Republicans who supported him were mostly liberal Republicans, and the Democrats who opposed him were mostly conservative Democrats. In almost every way, King was to the left of the Democratic party of his time, and of the Democratic party today.
Dr. King was himself not a Democrat or Republican; he did not belong to any political party and never ran for political office. But to call him a political conservative is uninformed at best and absolutely mendacious at worst.
Those who use “they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” as an argument against affirmative action not only take that line out of context, but completely ignore everything King ever said or did in his entire career.
King was critical of capitalism, virulently opposed to war and imperialism, and vocally supportive of organized labor. He opposed segregation and fought strongly for voting rights for minorities. When he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, he was in town in solidarity with striking sanitation workers — an action which Tennessee’s then-governor, Buford Ellington, referred to as “training 3,000 people to start riots.” Kind of a familiar accusation, huh?
Conservative love for Dr. King is something of a new phenomenon. When they weren’t calling him an outright Communist sympathizer, the political right spent many years depicting King as an inveterate womanizer who plagiarized speeches and undermined America. Go back and read some National Review archives if you’re curious about what the conservative movement thought of King when he was alive.
Remember when Martin Luther King Day was established in the 1980s? It was that noted lefty Jesse Helms who led the opposition in Congress, and Ronald Reagan who initially opposed it before ultimately changing course and signing the holiday into law. It was Republican Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona who moved to rescind the holiday in that state in the early ’90s, leading to national boycotts, including the NFL pulling a Super Bowl from Phoenix.
Then there were complaints this week that this week’s scheduled commemoration “took on a liberal flavor,” as though the original March had been some kind of neutral, apolitical event. If John Lewis — the 73-year-old congressman and civil rights giant who is the last living speaker from the 1963 march — wants to get up and say that Congress should pass immigration reform, I think he’s earned the right to do so.
Political alignments change over time and the politics of today and of the 1960s are very different. Attributing views about today’s politics to a man who’s been dead for 45 years is dodgy and unfair. But there’s absolutely no reading of history that makes Martin Luther King a conservative.