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.
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.
“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.