There is always a tendency for ideological and political groups to rally around (or demonize) important historical figures based on contemporary desires and goals. Martin Luther King, Jr. is no exception. Modern Leftists both claim him as an inspriation and reject some of his views. The same is true among the various Conservative groups, past and present. Would MLK Jr., for instance, still be as critical of homosexuality and LGBT issues as he was in his day? Would the modern Left embrace his emphasis on a Christian worldview? Would he wear a BLM shirt today, or would he be critical of that particular movement as many Conservative thinkers have become? We can speculate as to the path MLK Jr. the man would have taken had he not been killed, however it is the overall message he absolutely did deliver, at the time and in the context he delivered it, that matters most. This message is inherently valuable and good; one that we all can celebrate and enthusiastically pass on to future generations.
The legacy of MLK Jr. endures because he had the right message at the right time, the courage to say it, and the oratory skills to make it great. But the message is the most important part. He crafted his message to be compatible with our shared, tried and true moral principles; those that we know to be good in themselves. He showed people that the reality on the ground at the time (racial segregation, discrimination) was not passing ethical muster. The appeal was to shift our beliefs and acts into line with our true principles, as is required by our traditions and the promise of our country. He wanted to expand the boundaries of the mutual moral community to rightfully include more members (black Americans, minorities experiencing unjust discrimination) and to have the law reflect this as is required by the promise of our Republic. He did this without desecrating objectively valid and good traditions, but rather by appealing to them.
Conservatives can and should embrace this message. His core message is inherently American in that it reflects the intent of the Founders and the founding principles. It is Republican in that it reflects the essence of the Republican Party platforms extending back to their abolitionist roots. And it is Conservative in that it appeals to our reason and our heart as the mode of action; it favors reason over emotion (although it is hardly devoid of it), consent over coercion, and there is an unmistakable appeal to following God’s will and careful deliberation rather than man’s fiery desire and tendency towards seeking revenge/retribution alone. MLK Jr., like so many others before and after him seeking modes of justice, flirted with revolutionary and militant ideas at times but ultimately he favored nonviolence, civil disobedience, and appeal to the heart as the best way forward. Given the circumstances, he was correct.
Some Conservatives today however question the value of celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message so enthusiastically in light of some of his opinions on other social and economic matters in his time. Many still reflect the sentiments of those that opposed him while he was alive and upon debating the creation of the MLK Jr. holiday, as reflected in this article. These critics hold that his words and associations helped set the stage for the continuation of the inflitration of the Leftist worldview in American society and institutions. While he was openly critical of communism, his more conservative detractors alledge he helped with the perpetuation of socialist economic thought and sympathy for policies that would in some ways shift into modern divisive identity politics and the racially-motivated social justice movements of today. This however may be a serious case of Monday-morning quarterbacking. The strategy of these Leftist groups today is to fundamentally transform society and government by promoting subjectively-derived principles contrary to the objective ones our nation is founded upon. Their goal is not to unite under shared community, but to divide and coerce compliance with their own preferred principles based on a warped view of reality. It is fundamentally immoral, unsustainable, and unamerican. This is contrary to MLK Jr.’s core thought even though it parallels many of his goals, his tactics at the time, and the path many of his associates took after his death. But it is morally a dead end. This is why we ought to reject them now in the present and why their legacy will not endure as MLK Jr.’s legacy endures.
But the question remains, had MLK Jr. not been assassinated, would he be another typical big government, BLM-advocating, CRT-supporting, social justice warrior today? Some of his contemporaries went down that route. Some of them seem to have sold out to become pawns in a bigger political game, while others may genuinely believe it to be the right thing to do to achieve equality/equity/justice etc. I don’t think one can fairly make that assumption about MLK Jr. however. His personal transgressions aside, he did espouse some views that suggest sympathy for socialist ideals, however it is always secondary to his main focus and importance, which is the specific case of segregation and unequal rights for black people and others in the US. Even then, he usually emphasized community action over government action and raising individual virtue/character over demanding coercion of respect. I think we must remember the times in which he lived; even Thomas Sowell was a Marxist at one time, and then he evolved into one of the leading critics of it. If MLK Jr. did live and follow the path of Jesse Jackson-type social justice advocates, that would make him a hypocrite in important ways and his legacy would be tarnished. Also important to note is the very different nature of what MLK Jr. and his contemporaries were fighting for compared to that which modern day activists are fighting. Different situations necessitate different tactics, the justification of which depends on whether or not there is an injustice in the first place and what paths there are towards addressing it. The major criticism surrounding much of the Leftist advocacy today is centered not around denying there is lingering injustice in society, but rather the extent and mode of addressing it. Does an “End justify a means?” Shall we achieve social justice “By any means necessary,” even if it means sacrificing the rights of others and/or deploying unjust means? Some seem to equate what MLK Jr. supported in his day to similar tactics deployed towards achieving current goals. Would he support all such acts today? Assuming that would be the case is a stretch given his greater familiarity with the Western tradition and the Founding ideals, and greater reflective tendencies. Over time and upon considering how things played out, perhaps he would instead support views and the approach offered by today’s Conservatives towards addressing lingering injustice?
This is of course all speculation. We must remember that Martin Luther King, Jr. is not important because of his personal actions or even his personal beliefs on various subjects like Vietnam, socialism, or gay marriage. He is important for his eloquent framing of our moral principles applied to the main issue of the day – racial injustice in his time. He had few, if any, original thoughts or novel realizations of a political or philosophical nature; and that is ok because most people do not. His speeches are generally compatible with our Western traditions and he appropriately applied objective moral principles to the injustice at the time. He is one of history’s best orators and helped bring about positive change. This is what we ought to remember about him and it is what kids ought to learn about him at a young age. Revisionist histories and attempts to fit MLK Jr. into contemporary narratives and “claim” him for one specific cause must always be checked and put into context. We must also always remember it is not necessary to approve of, or support, everything about an individual in order to appreciate the good they have done. If such a requirement existed to warrant reverence, we probably would not be honoring too many people at all. Nor is it necessary to ignore the aspects of his thought with which we do not agree. There is a time and place for discussion of all this and no matter one’s current political perspective or worldview, we can gain from constructive dialogue on his beliefs and actions within the context of his life and the culture of the time. MLK Jr.’s ultimate goals and orientation towards establishing justice are also clearly in line with many modern well-meaning Progressives, Liberals, and Democrats – whether or not he would have ultimately supported some of the more extreme views and tactics employed by Leftists groups today.
Martin Luther King, Jr. ought to be thought of as a uniter, not a divider. His last speech, the “I’ve been to the Moutaintop” speech, concluded (which one ought to listen to, not just read) with the following passage:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
He was assassinated the day after this speech. It would be difficult to find a more fitting example of one expressing hope and faith in a people accepting the supremacy of God’s will (duty to abide by objective moral principles, have faith in love) over primarily seeking worldly desires than this passage delivered almost prophetically upon his own demise. We can all see the Promised Land if we just look for it, and we can get there if we just have the courage to reject fear and selfish worldly desires. People like Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us get over many mountains in our paths; we must recognize their contributions, continue on the virtuous path, and be mindful not to backtrack into the darkness of fear, division, and selfish desire at the expense of what is good, right, and just.