Don’t Let Conservatives Co-Opt Dr. King’s Progressive Social Justice Legacy

One of the most outlandish conservative arguments we’ve heard over the past few years is that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. should somehow be considered a conservative. Dr. King was perhaps our nation’s leading advocate of social justice and equality in the 20th century. Through his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience, his leadership abilities, and his amazing oratorical skills, Dr. King was the primary (though far from the only) leader of the Civil Rights movement that fundamentally transformed American society and ended the injustice that was legal segregation in America. Dr. King also worked hard to alleviate the economic inequality that denied too many Americans a fair chance in life, and to end a militaristic foreign policy that denied justice to people overseas and deprived our country of the resources needed to achieve justice here in the U.S.

The conservative attempt to co-opt Dr. King as one of their own appears to be based on two points. The first is Dr. King’s famous quote about judging people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, which conservatives take to be a statement in favor of individualism and in opposition to things such as affirmative action. But such a reading ignores the fact that Dr. King was identifying such colorblindness as an ultimate goal that was going to require massive societal and individual action, and a radical transformation in values to achieve. To extrapolate conservatism from that quote while ignoring the civil disobedience, political organizing, and speeches that Dr. King carried out to get to the goal identified in that quote is facile at best.

The second basis for the conservatives’ attempted co-opting is the fact that Dr. King was motivated by strong religious values and spoke frequently of a moral code from God that we must follow. But this argument ignores the fact that many progressives are highly religious people whose progressivism is motivated by their religious faith. The fact that one has religious faith does not necessarily make them either a conservative or a progressive. Instead, the question becomes whether that faith led them toward one political side or the other.

In addition to ignoring the entire context of Dr. King’s work, the conservatives’ argument blithely skips over the historic reality that it was conservatives who fought Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement every step of the way. For example, one of the leading conservative magazines, the National Review, made a habit of attacking Dr. King, including publishing the following commentary in 1965 after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize:

For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together. With their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes — particularly the adolescents and the children — that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice. And they have done more than talk. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed — and, no doubt, with the best of intentions — and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind.

Other attacks on the Civil Rights movement by the National Review have been compiled by Brad Delong here and includes the absolutely hideous 1957 piece entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.”

The conservatives’ attempted co-opting also ignores Dr. King’s message, which was decidedly progressive and contrary to conservative values in that it pushed for concerted effort to quickly achieve social change. For example, Dr. King spoke frequently about how all individuals and communities are interrelated, as this quote from the 1963 Letter From a Birmingham Jail makes clear:

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Similarly, in announcing his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dr. King explained how militarism was sapping resources away from the “shining moment” in which it appeared that government was finally serious about tackling poverty:

A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.

Also, in direct contrast to conservatism, which tends to prioritize social order and stability over the rapid change or disruption in the established social order that is often necessary to achieve justice, Dr. King urged fast action on civil rights and social justice, as he stated here in the Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

And in his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Council, Dr. King not only advocated for a national guaranteed minimum income, but he also made clear that his vision required a major transformation of our society into one that better balances the individual ethos of free-market capitalism with more communitarian policies that help ensure that the benefits from society are enjoyed by all.

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about Where do we go from here, that we honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, Who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question, Who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question, Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water? These are questions that must be asked.

Now, don’t think that you have me in a bind today. I’m not talking about communism.

What I’m saying to you this morning is that communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the 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. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

Dr. King’s legacy was that of a social justice leader who understood that a social movement based on civil disobedience and pushing for government action was needed quickly to bring about the kind of equality and fairness that had been denied to oppressed people for far too long. In short, Dr. King was pretty much the exact opposite of the conservatives of today.

If you’d like to help challenge the conservatives’ efforts to co-opt the legacy of Dr. King, talk to your family and friends and write a letter to your local newspaper editor about the true importance of Dr. King’s efforts to achieve social justice and equality through non-violent civil disobedience.