Martin Luther King

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Richard Wagner examines narratives to try to get a more accurate picture of who he really was.

Often when we venerate historical figures, we do an injustice to their cause.  While Martin Luther King Jr. was controversial in his time, his memory is almost universally celebrated.  The modern day, post-Reaganite conservative celebrates Dr. King for his determination, his patriotic appeals to America’s core values of freedom and equality (as equality is understood on the right), and his desire to bring people of all races together to the “table of brotherhood”, and sometimes also for his deep Christian faith.

Liberals praise Dr. King for his inclusiveness and, like their conservative counterparts, celebrate his fight freedom and equality, but also emphasize King’s appeals to economic justice to an extent.  This all ties into the “color-blind” agenda, to resolve racial equality by simply ending the strong distinctions between people of different races.  In both cases, Dr. King is a saint whose personality flaws and many aspects of his ideology are ignored.

Many modern day civil rights activists, particularly African Americans, feel that King’s memory has been “white-washed”, however.  When the same people who celebrate Dr. King denounce #blacklivesmatter, something isn’t right.  Dr. King, after all, was a black man, and he advocated primarily for blacks’ rights.  He encouraged blacks to be proud of who they are and furthermore did not seem to think that “color blindness” was the solution to racism.  Dr. King was actually far more radical in many ways than the white-washed version of history would have us believe, (as will be shown below.)  African-Americans have every right to defend the memory of Dr. King, and their insights are crucial to getting a more historically accurate narrative.  But they, too, are human and prone to human error.  For many American blacks, Dr. King was an advocate of black rights, almost exclusively, and his genuine appeals to working class whites are often ignored, as well as his friendships with sympathetic whites.

King’s distorted legacy

Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech was clearly the most remembered speech of his life, and probably the most important.  The most famous words of all from this speech are known by school children across the nation and taught to immigrants seeking US citizenship.  

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

These words have become as American as apple pie.  However, many contend that these words are taken out of context to suggest that Dr. would advocate for a “color-blind” society.  I myself have often quoted them as a denunciation of claims of “white privilege”.  However, Dr. King was not color blind.  

I came across a very interesting, unsigned article in “The Establishment”, called “The Exploitation of Martin Luther King’s Legacy by White Supremacy” that shed some light on this subject.  According to this article, “history books paint him as the friend of well-meaning whites and the moral opposition of angry blacks.”  Essentially, he is what “post-racial” whites want the Civil Rights movement to be.  According to this article, King is seen as THE Civil Rights leader, not just one of many, and then his legacy is distorted to support what I’m sure the author would regard as “white privilege in post-racial America”.  

Dr. King and Malcolm X, and the false dichotomy

The aforementioned article also discussed the distorted history of Malcolm X to further expose this “white supremacist” agenda.  Malcolm X and Dr. King are often presented as polar opposites.  As a young white male from the south, I’ll confirm many of this article’s points about this.  In school and elsewhere, most of us were taught that Malcolm X was the violent radical from the Nation of Islam, that group that claims that white people are a “devil race”.  

Martin Luther King, in contrast, was the peaceful, gentle Christian who, when compelled to go a mile for a white man, would go two miles.  This, however, distorts the memory of both men.  Malcolm X did come from the Nation of Islam but turned from them largely because of their hatred for whites.  Malcolm X embraced Sunni Islam, and, like Dr. King, believed that the best way to fight racism was to bring people of all races together.  He and King’s main disagreement, other than theology, was on violence in self-defense.  Malcolm X was not a man hungry for violence, but he strongly advocated self-defense and feared that Dr. King was making blacks vulnerable by discouraging violence of any kind.  King, however, believed that by not using violence, and by submitting to the legal consequences of resisting unjust laws (ironically showing respect for the law, as a whole, while disobeying certain laws), he would win the sympathy of more and more whites.  Dr. King seems to have been correct, but it is a great injustice to the memory of Malcolm X to present him as some angry, violent black nationalist, especially considering that Malcolm was actually indoctrinated that way and managed to overcome it.  Personally, as a white man, I admire Malcolm X for having overcome his anti-white indoctrination.

Dr. King and the Welfare State

There’s also an effort by the intellectual elites of the center-left to use Dr. King’s message to the poor to justify their support for a stronger welfare state, while simultaneously feeding their ongoing narrative that “racist dog whistles” are used to lure poor whites into “voting against their interests”.  Ryan Cooper is one of many pushing this narrative.  In his article, “Why poor white Americans are dying of despair?” he managed to write an entire article about income inequality, poverty, and racial strife, without ever mentioning the obvious solution – better jobs.  Dr. King, however, was not satiated by LBJ’s “Great Society” welfare state, as he knew that the poor not only needed better jobs as a lasting solution but that the nation needed it as well.  

So who was Dr. Martin Luther King, really?

First off, while his tactics were non-violent, he was in many ways very radical.  He was black and proud to be black.  He was not, however, a black nationalist or anything close.  King was an advocate for the poor and the working class of all races.  King was an advocate of political equality, desegregation, and voting rights, but that wasn’t all!  King was a man who reached out to the people who hated him the most – low-income whites in the south – because King could see past all that hatred and see that they had more in common than most people realized.  When in jail, King even referred to his white jailers as “brothers” and told them, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because, through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.”

The problem with “The Establishment” article is that it presents Dr. King as mostly a black advocate who only worked with whites for strategic reasons.  This too distorts Dr. King’s legacy.  On the #blacklivesmatter protest, we can’t say for certain what King would make of this particular movement, but while King has condemned riots, he has also expressed sympathy with rioters, saying that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  While I can’t say with any certainty how much of the #blacklivesmatter movement King would support or oppose, I can say with certainty that he’d never tell white people to “go to the back”.

Following the Voting Rights Act in 1965, King reached out like never before to working class whites and people of all colors in a common cause for the economically disadvantaged, which culminated in the “Poor People’s Campaign” of 1967.

King’s solution to poverty was not a welfare state, though he did support it.  But the welfare state is at best a painkiller, and at worst a distraction from economic injustice.  King’s solution in the Poor Peoples’ campaign was to put people to work.  They marched on Washington not to demand more Medicaid or more generous food stamps, but to demand that they are put to work repairing America’s infrastructure.  King’s economic solution was less like the post-LBJ “liberal” with its handouts to the poor to feed them yet another day, and more like the New Deal progressive with their “shovel ready jobs” and the promise of basic human dignity.  We’re here, we’re poor, there are roads that need to be paved.  Put us to work!

Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed radical, but not the kind that the modern left would like him to be.  He was also not the tame, moderate clergyman with modest civil rights goals that the modern conservative would like him to be.  He was an advocate for the poor and working class of every race.  He was a man of faith, but far from sainthood.  He was a human being with enormous character flaws, including adulterous affairs, and a plagiarized Ph.D. thesis.  These sad realities must also be remembered.  

Legacy of Martin Luther King

Despite King’s character flaws, and despite the obvious fact that the message of the Poor People’s Campaign has been swept under the rug by opportunists all across the spectrum, King did make an enormous impact on this country for the better.

The plagiarized Ph.D. thesis is long forgotten, but his “I have a dream” speech will be remembered into the ages.  King was one of the several civil rights leaders of that era, and thanks to him, Rosa Parks, Abernathy, the still living John Lewis, and a long list of others; thanks to these heroes, I was able to have black friends growing up in the 1980s.  I was able to go to school with them.  I was able to have a very impactful American Government professor at the college where I currently teach, from the predominantly black side of my hometown, Jacksonville FL.  Yes, de facto segregation continues, and yes, MLK did not truly end racism.  I’m sure he knew that as well.  

As a white man, I am grateful to King and his fellow civil rights advocates of the era.  I don’t know if all of them even realized they were fighting also for the rights of a lower middle-class white male from Florida, but they were.  I’m glad that I don’t live in an era where blacks have to step aside on the sidewalk.  I’m a little old-fashioned and tend to hold the door for ladies.  Would a black lady, in the 1950s, know what to do when a white man holds the door for her?  I’m glad I don’t have to find out.  I’m also glad especially that we can literally eat at the table together.  I’m also grateful that I had professors who were white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and I’m grateful for my students of every race, creed, and color.  To this day, young black students can share their perspective with me.  While they often show me that we still have racial injustices that need to be resolved, thanks to leaders like Martin Luther King, they are able to tell me that.

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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