Americans will be invoking the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., looking to his words and example for inspiration today. They
ought to think twice if they assume King is nothing more than the
voice of modern liberalism.
There are many
things, of course, which conservatives do not like about Dr. King.
For one, he became too close, later in his career, to the welfare
state. He was enamored of the theology of the Social Gospel, the
movement that undermined much of mainstream Protestantism in the
twentieth century. Later in life he was a vocal opponent of American
involvement in the Vietnam. And we now know that in his scholarship
and personal life King was far from perfect.
let me suggest three ways in which King's message is profoundly
conservative, and relevant today.
First, of course,
concerns the question of race. 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. He dreamed of a color-blind
society, based on the equality of all Americans and their sharing
of equal unalienable rights.
dream, King said at Lincoln University in 1961, "says that
each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred
by nor derived from the state. To discover where they came from
it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for
they are God-given. . . . The American dream reminds us that every
man is heir to the legacy of worthiness."
An agenda that
advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides takes us away
from King's vision.
King believed in moral character. He spoke of self-improvement and
self-help, in both moral and practical terms, and believed in the
work ethic, and thrift, and spoke against crime and disorderly conduct.
He also stressed
the importance of the traditional family. Indeed, King's fears about
black family breakdown led him to become one of the few civil-rights
leaders not to reject Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial 1965
report that warned of rising illegitimacy rates among blacks.
aspect of King's thought is told in the current issue of
City Journal by Joel Schwartz, who suggests that King
turned to the welfare state when he became disheartened by the emergence
of the black underclass.
King embraced not multiculturalism but the Western tradition of
knowledge, wisdom and faith, reaching back through the likes of
Reinhold Niebuhr, John Locke, and Martin Luther to Thomas Aquinas,
Aristotle, and Plato. And he firmly embraced this nation and its
commitment to ideals rooted in that great tradition.
these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters,"
King wrote in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, "they were
in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and
for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby
bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which
were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the
Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."
not a world of moral relativism, but of self-evident truth and moral
law. When he spoke of his dream he was appealing not to what divides
us but to what we have in common, to the larger principles and ideals
which transcend our diversity.
King Jr.'s understanding of these things human equality,
individual character and moral truth has great implications
for our politics and policies today. While all Americans recall
his ringing words, honest liberals, and discerning conservatives
ought to remind us of King's real legacy.