Rethinking MLK

Today marks the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day across America. Social media accounts of politicians from both sides of the spectrum are competing today to see who can honor Dr. King the most. Republican leaders and pundits are perhaps even more enthusiastic than the left in the way they revere Dr. King and his fight for civil rights. The same conservatives who denounce the George Floyd riots, Critical Race Theory being taught in schools, and affirmative action in universities will fall over themselves to put Dr. King on a pedestal.

In the entire history of our republic, only two men have been honored with national holidays: George Washington, the father of this nation, the greatest American in history, who remains first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It makes sense: Dr. King is, in a way, the father of modern America. The social revolutions of the 1960s created an entirely new country, even if many people still do not realize it. Despite speaking about his desire for the United States to “live out the true meaning of its creed,” King’s actions permanently altered the nature of our society.

Author Christopher Caldwell wrote a fantastic book last year called Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, in which he looked at the massive upheavals our society has experienced since that decade. In that book he examined how the actions of men such as Dr. King, President Lyndon Johnson, and even President Ronald Reagan all affirmed this revolution, this transformation into a completely new country, despite their allegedly good intentions.

The political divides of the past fifty years are really about the New America trying to displace the Old.

The Old America is mostly made up of conservative Republicans. We believe that the founding of this country was in 1776, that the true meaning of America is found in freedom and liberty, that our founding documents are the Declaration of Independence, and that our biggest hero is George Washington.

The New America is mostly made up of progressive Democrats. They believe that our country was founded in the 1960s, that our values are inclusivity and equity, our founding documents are the “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and that the true heroes of this country are civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Acolytes of New America have been working hard to erase any trace of Old America from both our discourse and our very geography. What sort of message does it send for Republican leaders to genuflect before the very architects of this destruction?

Referring to this bifurcation of America in Age of Entitlement, Caldwell says:

American politics had re-sorted itself around that question—which came down to the question of whether one had benefited from or lost by the transfers of rights, goods, and privileges carried out under the new constitutional dispensation that began in 1964. The Democrats were the party of those who benefited: not just racial minorities but sexual minorities, immigrants, women, government employees, lawyers—and all people sophisticated enough to be in a position to design, run, or analyze new systems. This collection of minorities could, with discipline, be bundled into an electoral majority, but that was not, strictly speaking, necessary. The hierarchies of government, the judiciary, and the corporate world were Democratic in their orientations. Sympathetic regulators, judges, and attorneys took up the task of transferring as many prerogatives as possible from the majority to various minorities. Republicans were the party, as we have noted, of yesteryear’s entire political spectrum, of New Deal supporters and New Deal foes, of the people who would have voted for Richard Nixon in 1960 and the people who would have voted for John F. Kennedy. The lost world of that period seemed an idyll to many Americans. The parties represented two different constitutions, two different eras of history, even two different technological platforms. And increasingly, two different racial groups.

Republican leaders go out of their way to honor Dr. King for two reasons, I think: First, they want to demonstrate their anti-racist bona fides, trying to head off the usual name-calling and accusations that are deployed against any conservative who does not toe the progressive line, and second, they want to draw a distinction between the ideals that Dr. King supposedly stood for and the modern edifice of social justice and identity politics. Yet as Caldwell explains, that edifice was built on Dr. King’s work!

Republicans and others who may have been uneasy that the constitutional baby had been thrown out with the segregationist bathwater consoled themselves with a myth: The “good” civil rights movement that the martyred Martin Luther King, Jr., had pursued in the 1960s had, they said, been “hijacked” in the 1970s by a “radical” one of affirmative action, with its quotas and diktats. Once the country came to its senses and rejected this optional, radical regime, it could have the good civil rights regime back. None of that was true. Affirmative action and political correctness were the twin pillars of the second constitution. They were what civil rights was. They were not temporary.

Despite appealing to Americans’ belief in the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Dr. King’s actions helped bring forth a new society based on an unwritten constitution of forced equity and government interference. It was King’s luck, so to speak, to be gunned down before anyone could witness the inevitable fruit of this poison tree. He died a hero before he could become a villain. His martyrdom has allowed people from all sides to claim his mantle, from race-baiters like Al Sharpton, Marxists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even the pro-life movement appeals to King’s ideals. Every year, Christian conservatives march Dr. King’s niece, Alveda King, out to explain that his true legacy is conservative, despite every other member of his family marching in lockstep with the progressive left.

Millions of conservative Republicans have grown up in post-1960s America, and thus have no frame of reference to compare our new society. MLK Jr. Day was enshrined as a federal holiday in the 1980s, and for many of us it has always been a part of our culture. Writing in Chronicles Magazine nearly forty years ago, arch-conservative Sam Francis warned that the deification of Dr. King would inevitably lead to the destruction of pre-1960s American icons:

It is merely a matter of time before the Confederate flag is surrendered, along with local statues of Confederate veterans and heroes, “Dixie,” and most other memorials of antebellum civilization. Their passing may not be a cause of mourning among many outside the South (or many within the South, for that matter), but the same logic that compels their abandonment reaches further. The three most prominent monuments in Washington, DC, are those dedicated to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Is there a schoolchild in the United States today who does not know that the first two were slaveowners? Is there any literate person in America who does not know that none of the three was a racial egalitarian, that every one of them uttered statements that make Jimmy the Greek sound like an ACLU lawyer? The same argument that drives Mr. Snyder from his low but honest trade and pulls down a banner commemorating the last stand of a desperate people will demolish the obelisk and temples that memorialize the major statesmen of the American nation.

Francis was a prophet. The last decade has seen the elimination, not just of the Battle Flag and Confederate statues, but of memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Abraham Lincoln. These men represent an America that is, in the eyes of many in power today, dead and gone. The New America founded by Dr. King cannot tolerate symbols of the Old America to remain.

Why should I bring this up on MLK Jr. Day? Why rain on the parade of Republicans who want to honor a civil rights leader? Why not just let sleeping dogs lie? Can we not just honor Dr. King together and remember his words of freedom and equality?

Because truth matters. Dr. King may have had some lofty ideals, and he certainly gave a good speech, but not only were the consequences of his actions bad for our country, he himself was not the saint we think he was.

Digging into Dr. King’s life brings up all sorts of issues that should trouble us, issues that should not be swept under the rug in the name of hagiography:

If you read Dr. King’s interview with Playboy Magazine in 1965, you might notice that his words bear a striking resemblance to the Marxist race-baiters of today. He calls for more government spending on black communities, he makes excuses for race riots, and he calls Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater a “racist” and Alabama Governor George Wallace “Hitler”. It is all too familiar, no?

Conservatives might not like to admit it, but the road to George Floyd started with Martin Luther King Jr. Replacing Independence Day with Juneteenth started by replacing George Washington with Dr. King as the most important man in American history.

By all means, let us proclaim the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” By all means, let us reinforce some of the good things that Dr. King spoke of in his speeches. But we should not rewrite history. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. planted the tree that is now bearing such poisoned fruit in our society. To place him equal to George Washington in the American pantheon is to endorse that fruit, and diminish the heroes that truly built this country.

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