"It didn't cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn't cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. But now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, speech while organizing the Poor People's Movement [From Citizen King.]
Conservatives have a decades-long history of deeply divided views on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On the one hand, there’s the traditional “most dangerous Negro in America” (per J. Edgar Hoover) view that dominated their thinking while King was alive, and even up to the time his birthday was made into a national holiday.
On the other, there’s a long-standing attempt to kidnap King ideologically and reinvent him as one of their own. This effort often revolves around the only line most conservatives seem to know King spoke—something about “the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”
By ripping that line out of context, imbuing it with their own odious character narratives, and ignoring virtually everything else King said or did in his life—much less what conservatives at the time said about him—they have invented a fantasy figure, closer to Santa Claus than to the real Martin Luther King. And that Santa figure exists for one purpose: to make them feel good about themselves—I mean really good about themselves—when the real Martin Luther King would fill them with shame and humiliation, if not outright self-disgust.
The conservative kidnapping of King is a perverse example of mythos—meaning making—as opposed to logos—empirical knowledge about the real world, which helps to explain why no amount of facts to the contrary will stop conservatives from indulging in it. But we can certainly make it difficult for them to spread this calumny without being met with waves of richly deserved ridicule whenever they repeat it.
From a logos perspective, as a matter of the historical record, it’s relatively simple and straightforward to refute this absurdity, as Katie Grimes did here at Women in Theology, for example, on the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She reminds us that King was both an anti-imperialist and a pacifist, who called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”; he believed in using the power of the federal government to combat both racism and poverty, and “He believed that law and order often bears little resemblance to justice.” Now, if that’s a conservative, somebody needs to tell Fox News! But, of course, like Fox News itself, the ideological kidnapping of King has nothing to do empirical facts.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones to distort King’s moral and political message, and misrepresent who he was. Periodic GOP claims that King was one of their own have been refuted by a wide range of sources, for example. But others more genuinely open to King have also gotten King wrong in significant ways as well, as Michael Eric Dyson made abundantly clear in his 2000 book, "I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr." (see my Denver Post review here), and reinforced by Dyson in a Salon King Day interview this past January. "[W]hen King began to say that racism was deeply rooted in our society and that only a structural change would remove it, he alienated key segments of the liberal establishment," Dyson wrote, a shift that many liberals simply erase from their consciousness. Many black nationalists also failed to appreciate this shift, and the degree to which it reflected a respectful—if not unqualified—rapprochement with the nationalist tradition.
But these incomplete and distorted views of King by more progressive forces are models of clarity compared to the delusional fantasies that conservatives have spun. In fact, for them now, Santa Claus King exists to justify their racist glee that Michael Brown is dead, and Darren Wilson got off scot free in killing him! I’m not just making this up. This actually happened on my Twitter feed [edited version], starting with my tweeting about a recently posted story of mine:
Everything the Darren Wilson grand jury got wrong: The lies, errors and mistruths that a killer go free http://www.salon.com/2014/11/26/everything_the_darren_wilson_grand_jury_got_wrong_the_lies_and_mistruths_that_let_michael_browns_killer_off_the_hook/… via @Salon
@ConservativeNonentity (not the real Twitter name)
@PaulHRosenberg 1) Brown strong armed a store clerk 2) he reached INTO a police vehicle to attack an officer #EndOfStory
Sorry @ConservativeNonentity but those aren't capital offenses, just because he's black. Does the name Emmett Till mean anything to you?
Sorry @PaulHRosenberg not racial issues either. Do the words "content of their character" ring a bell? #RaceBaiting
There’s an awful lot going on in this brief interchange, but the fact that King is being quoted to justify a de facto police lynching is pretty staggering all by itself. A white cop as judge, jury and executioner, sentencing a black teen to death for shoplifting some cigarillos, justified by quoting Martin Luther King? It just doesn’t get much more racist and perverted than that, while still pretending not to be.
At one level, I wasn’t really surprised by the audacity involved. I remembered quite well from my youth how the worst racists always assumed a posture of moral superiority, in which nothing they said could be questioned, and the more outrageous the claims they made, the more self-satisfied they felt. I also knew that conservatives had been working for decades to reshape King into their image—I’d even written about it 20 years ago this coming King Day. So what could possibly make racists more self-satisfied today than to quote King himself to justify wantonly killing black youths?
Note that my original story I was linking to was about how the grand jury process went wrong, which meant that none of Wilson’s story could be trusted, as it had never seriously been cross-examined—not to mention how it conflicted with other eyewitness accounts. Yet, @ConservativeNonentity completely ignored all of that, blatantly asserted Brown’s criminality, and said that criminality justified his death: “#EndOfStory.” So, if you’re going to play “don’t confuse me with the facts,” then fine, I thought, let’s go with the law: shoplifting is not a capital offense—unless, of course, you’re black, in which case everything is. Hence, my response, “but those aren't capital offenses, just because he's black.”
I then invoked Emmett Till because of the light it shines. Racists in the early '50s thought that Emmett Till’s murder was justified by his offense (whistling at a white girl), and racists today make exactly the same sort of argument in excusing Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown, and hundreds of other similar modern-day lynchings. #BlackLivesMatter. That’s what the hashtag is all about—pushing back against this wave of modern-day lynchings, and the larger toxic social environment that continues to produce them at such a staggering rate.
The resulting comeback, “not racial issues either,” is nonsensical. @ConservativeNonentity wants to say something like “he’s a criminal, regardless of race” but the subject here is not criminal conduct, it’s summary execution, 21 times more likely when the suspect is black—and there’s no getting around that, unless ... Quoting King here is a racist’s ‘Hail Mary’ move, saying, in effect, “Nothing is a racial issue, and no less than Martin Luther King says so. So there!”
If this were merely some weird, stand-alone, outlier kind of statement, I wouldn’t be writing about it. But the transformation of King into his exact opposite has been a long-term project of those who most fundamentally opposed him, and this is precisely the sort of fruit that they’ve been hoping for all these many years. We owe it to Dr. King—not just his memory, but his enduring spirit, and all he has done to make our country and our world better—not to let those who hated him, and most deeply opposed him, turn him into the exact opposite of what he was. This extreme example of just how far they’ll take it deserves our attention just for that.
There are two different ways I want to expose and attack the conservative perversion of Martin Luther King. First, show that their core attempt to portray King as opposed to race-based remedies is flat-out false. In fact, King’s own words not only support affirmation action, but reparations as well. Second, attack their attempt to claim King as a conservative by imposing their reactionary character narrative onto him. Just because he used the word "character" doesn’t mean he bought into all the ignorant things they say on the subject; quite the opposite, King’s idea of character had a distinctly progressive, if not radical orientation. I also want to provide some brief remarks, with links, to highlight two further lines of attack: first, showing that their broader attempt to portray King as a conservative willfully distorts his words, his record and history as well. Second, showing that their attempt to portray King as a conservative directly contradicts the arguments that actually existing conservatives made against him at the time—a particularly thorny problem for folks who like to go on about eternal truths, and God-given this-and-that, while condemning liberals and others for their "relativism."
Before I begin my King-specific arguments, however, I need to take a step back and survey the broader landscape, in which King—though important—is but one single figure. This broader landscape was perfectly captured by UC Berkeley law professor David Schraub, in a 2007 blog post, "Why Is the Only 'Good' Civil Rights Leader a Dead One?" King, of course, was the dead civil rights leader referred to, but the subject of the post was a devastating critique of "a meme that floats around the conservative right that tries to split the 'good' civil rights activists of the '60s, whose cause was laudable and just ... from the next generation of Black leaders, who are charlatans and ‘race-baiters.’" As Schraub explained:
Dr. King is the emblem of the former group, and perhaps its only political member; virtually no other civil rights pioneer of that era gets similar treatment. Dr. King serves as an apt model because he is quite conveniently dead, and thus unable to take positions that might be inopportune for his more conservative supporters. Had he not been assassinated, I firmly believe that White America would not have accorded King his current valorized status, for the precise reason that it would have been that much more difficult to mythologize his legacy if he was alive to contest it. Hence we have the title of the post: The only "good" civil rights leader is, quite literally, a dead one.
Schraub went on to point out that many civil rights leaders still around today, or until quite recently, were the same people who we’re told were so admirable once upon a time—Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, etc. “It's schizophrenic to the extreme to simultaneously praise and condemn the same people for the same advocacies in the same words,” Schraub concluded.
King may be different because he is dead, but it makes as much sense to claim he’s a conservative as it does to claim that John Lewis, Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond are. In fact, shortly after George Zimmerman’s acquittal I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera English, “Martin Luther King, race-baiter?” in which I recalled that King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” was essentially a stinging rebuke to local conservative religious leaders who accused him precisely of that—stirring up trouble, dividing people by race, the whole conservative litany of complaints about those who fight for racial justice. So, with that background in mind, let’s now turn to my arguments against the conservative kidnapping of Dr. Martin Luther King.
My first argument is that conservatives’ core attempt to portray King as opposed to race-based remedies is flat-out false. This attempt is one of the right's most consistent messages. This, from the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal, is typical:
King dreamed of a nation for his children where they would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character….
An agenda that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides, takes us away from King’s vision.
King Day 2013 saw a veritable orgy of corporate media coverage promoting the phony “MLK was a conservative” line—all using the “objective” format of “shape of the earth—opinions differ”-style stories. CBS carried an AP story, “MLK's ‘content of character’ quote inspires debate,” which conveyed the simplistic conservative lie like:
For many conservatives, the modern meaning of King's quote is clear: Special consideration for one racial or ethnic group is a violation of the dream….
King's most famous words are the crux of the disagreement.
"He was against all policies based on race," says Peter Schramm, a conservative historian. "The basis of his attack on segregation was 'judge us by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.' That's a profound moral argument."
But we do not learn that’s a load of hooey. King was not against all policies based on race—and he said so quite publicly. In his 1964 book "Why We Can’t Wait," King wrote:
Among the many vital jobs to be done, the nation must not only radically readjust its attitude toward the Negro in the compelling present, but must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past. It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years.
And, continuing in a similar vein:
Whenever this issue of compensatory or preferential 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 for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.
For someone embedded in the conservative mythos—their self-referential framework of meaning, it’s quite literally impossible for someone to aspire to the vision King articulated, and to also support affirmative action in recognition that we’re not there yet. And because it’s impossible within their mythos, they don’t have to actually bother with the logos side of the ledger, maybe check the historical record, even if they’re a “historian.” Such a position cannot exist (because of their own unexamined assumptions), therefore it does not exist, and there’s no point even looking to see if it does. This is a classic example of how mythos-based thinking need not have any contact at all with logos-based physical reality (even though it’s also entirely possible to have a mythos that’s deeply engaged with empirical concerns). In everyday speak, it’s why conservative lie a lot: Because it makes for much more pleasant stories—for them. The lie that Martin Luther King opposed race-based policies is absolutely fundamental for conservatives bent on kidnapping him and rebranding him as one of their own.
Now let’s turn to my second argument, against their attempt to claim King as a conservative by imposing their reactionary character narrative onto him. If one rereads King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (much less earlier incarnations, like the second passage here), it’s obvious that character was not King’s primary concern in that part of his speech—the attainment of justice and brotherhood/sisterhood are the unifying themes, along with the redemption of a promise given long ago, but never before kept. But that does not mean character plays no role in King’s thinking, just because it plays a subordinate role in this context. That’s why there’s more to be said on this subject—if only conservatives could come up with something! Two things, in particular, are noteworthy about their attempt to make King a conservative character philosopher. The first is how little direct evidence is ever presented for King expressing conservative character-narrative attitudes. The second is how completely they ignore the well-known evidence of a very non-conservative character narrative in King’s thinking.
A typical example of conservatives' lack of evidence was seen back in 1993, when the Heritage Foundation put on an event, “The Conservative Virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King.” There were some brief introductory remarks, followed by two speakers. The first, Robert Woodson, who gave a speech of more than 1,500 words, before turning things over to the second speaker, William Bennett, whose recently released "Book of Virtues" had just made the best-seller list. “That is the legacy of Dr. King,” Woodson said, in conclusion. “If he were alive today, he, too, would have had a best-selling book on virtues.”
I would love to critique Woodson’s account of King’s legacy, but alas, Woodson not only failed to quote a single line from King, he did not even present a coherent narrative of what he claimed King’s conservative legacy to be. We can read between the lines and figure something out, of course—something between “Get offa my lawn!” and “Pull up your pants!” But the reality is that King’s actual words, his actual record, give Woodson so little to work with that he doesn’t even try. (Don’t take my word for it—click the link and read it for yourself.) He simply claims at the end—literally out of the blue—that if King were alive, he’d be a Bill Bennett clone. So there!
But nothing reveals the foolishness of conservatives trying to enlist King in their character crusades quite like the evidence to the contrary in his famous speech “The Drum Major Instinct,” in which he clearly lays out a conception of character, rooted in the Gospels, that is profoundly progressive, if not radical. The clarity of King’s vision, and its diametric opposition to conservative blame-the-victim character narratives, made it the focal point of my attention in a piece I wrote almost 20 years ago, for distribution on one of the earliest progressive email lists, “Martin Luther King: A Different Drum Major.” In that piece, I began as follows:
It's fashionable today to pose the theme of personal responsibility in opposition to the continued quest for social justice. We even hear Reverend Martin Luther King quoted out of context, as if judging people by the "content of their character" was meant to endorse the idea that some of us should starve, some should go homeless, and some should shiver naked in the midst of winter.
But Dr. King didn't think that the content of our characters was something coldly quantifiable, capable of being determined by the marketplace, like the price of pork rind or pig iron. When he spoke of personal responsibility he had a much more lofty view in mind: that we are each responsible not just for ourselves, but for each other, and for our collective redemption from the sins of our past that stain us still. He did not falsely oppose the ideas of personal responsibility and commitment to social justice. Rather, he saw the commitment to social justice—rooted in the Gospels—as a means for transforming mere egotism and blind ambition into engines of individual redemption—the crowning reward of personal responsibility.
I encourage you to go read the whole piece—and King’s speech as well. But for the purpose of the current argument here, it’s enough to simply note that(a) “The Drum Major Instinct” exists, b) it’s a major exposition by King on the nature of moral maturity and development, c) which fundamentally rejects much of what conservatives cherish, d) about which they say virtually nothing, e) essentially pretending that it does not exist, f) while at the same time pretending to be experts on his moral vision, g) which just so happens to closely resemble theirs, h) even though they can’t produce a single quote to support their case. It’s utterly fantastical as a matter of logos, of discovering truths about the world; but of course it’s not a matter of logos at all—it’s a matter of mythos, pure and simple.
A similar sort of critique can be made about the more general range of “King was really a conservative” arguments—they are very long on projecting the conservative mythos, and very short on quoting, much less dealing with, anything from King himself, let alone grappling with the historical record surrounding him. A prime example of this is the recurrent effort to make much of the fact that King was minister—which proves nothing at all, given how many other liberal, progressive and even radical ministers there are and have been in American history.
There’s also an effort to reinvent King as a “family values” conservative—helped along by the uncorroborated testimony of his right-wing niece, Alveda King, who has long tried to peddle a picture of him as a conservative, claiming that he was anti-gay, antiabortion, and a Republican—though without ever explaining how she knows these things, which King’s immediate family has repeatedly denied. To counteract this piece of fantasy, the open public record is strikingly clear: Martin Luther King was a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood, and one of four initial recipients of the Margaret Sanger Award, first bestowed in 1966. King did not accept the award in person, but he did write his acceptance speech, which his wife delivered in his place. “There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger's early efforts,” King wrote. “Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.” I defy any anti-choice social conservative to find King saying anything so complimentary about anyone on their side,.
Finally, there’s the argument that today’s conservatives’ attempts to portray King as a conservative directly contradict the arguments that actually existing conservatives made against him at the time. Here’s Carolyn Garris Raney, from “Martin Luther King's Conservative Legacy,” a 2006
Heritage Foundation document, for example:
Dr. King believed in a fixed moral law, an anathema to moral relativists espousing subjective values. For King, a just law was "a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God." Dr. King required that his followers lead moral lives, and he emphasized the importance of faith in the face of adversity. Modern liberalism has rebuffed this teaching, dedicating great effort to silence religion and morality. Again, conservatives are the standard-bearers here.
Again, “modern liberalism’s” silencing of religion and morality is a key element of the conservative mythos, not to be mistaken for reality. But assume, for the sake argument, that Raney is correct. A fixed moral law would have been as true in 1955 or 1965 as it is today. So how did conservatives back then respond to King? Historian Rick Perlstein reminds us:
Conservatives--both Democrats and Republicans--hated King's doctrines. Hating them was one of the litmus tests of conservatism.
The idea was expounded most systematically in a 567-page book that came out shortly after King's assassination, House Divided: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, by one of the right's better writers, Lionel Lokos, and from the conservative movement's flagship publisher, Arlington House. "He left his country a legacy of lawlessness," Lokos concluded. "The civil disobedience glorified by Martin Luther King [meant] that each man had the right to put a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on laws that met with his favor." Lokos laid the rise of black power, with its preachments of violence, at King's feet. This logic followed William F. Buckley, who, in a July 20, 1967 column titled "King-Sized Riot In Newark," imagined the dialogue between a rioter and a magistrate:
"You do realize that there are laws against burning down delicatessen stores? Especially when the manager and his wife are still inside the store?"
"Laws Schmaws. Have you never heard of civil disobedience? Have you never heard of Martin Luther King?"….
The conservative argument, consistent and ubiquitous, was that King, claiming the mantle of moral transcendence, was actually the vector for moral relativism.
There are many more examples that could be cited, but you get the point: When two eternally and universally right camps of conservatives get into a tussle, don’t argue with either one of them. Just put on the popcorn, sit back, and watch them tear each other to shreds. Don’t worry. Don’t feel guilty. Martin Luther King said it was all right.