MLK Was No “Conservative”

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 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 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.”
  • “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 intellectual 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, who wrote: “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.”

This story originally appeared on Friday, October 16, 2009, on NewsRealblog.