My first memory of learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in school is in the first grade, but it probably started as early as kindergarten or pre-school.
His ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and his championing of civil rights for black Americans is one of the first things kids learn about him in school. As they get older, they learn more. Dr. King’s positions and speeches became more complex as time went on.
Possibly because the majority of Dr. King’s activism took place in the culturally and politically tumultuous 1960s, but most people have traditionally considered Dr. King a liberal.
For some time now there has been a conservative movement, spurred by a 2006 essay by Carolyn Garris of the Heritage Foundation, that Dr. King’s message was “fundamentally conservative.” The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think-tank.
Because King believed in a firm moral code (he was a reverend, after all), this made him conservative. Yes, he criticized homosexuality, opposed abortion, and defended the “traditional family.” He was also supposedly a serial adulterer. So take it all for what it’s worth. Besides, who knows how King’s social views would have evolved had he lived longer. Look at how much of the country’s opinion of homosexuality has changed as time has gone on.
King believed in equality for black Americans, that separate but equal just wasn’t good enough. He believed in individualism and self-discipline, values which conservatives have tried to make strictly their own, but most liberals also believe in individualism and self-discipline. Seriously. Ask them.
Plus, it’s not like King could do much but encourage oppressed Southern black Americans to be anything but self-reliant. Early on, he wasn’t well known enough to get people’s attention, there was very little policy in place to help struggling blacks, and there were even fewer political candidates in place who were looking to help them. He allegedly changed his tactics later, when he saw the social disaster that was the black underclass in Northern cities, and decided the government would have to help.
Conservatives also try to argue that Dr. King’s “not be judged by the color of our skin but the content of our character” line as a case against affirmative action. He actually supported it.
This all seems far-fetched, an attempt by revisionist historians to place a respected, beloved historical figure in their corner, as if he’d agree with their current positions, hook, line, and sinker. It allows them to claim his legacy to further their own agenda.
Most historians agree that Dr. King was becoming more radical as time went on, not more conservative. You can see the evolution in his writing and speeches. He called for redistributing wealth to the poor, the nationalization of industries and a guaranteed annual salary. He was against the Vietnam War. Nothing about any of those things exactly screams, “Conservative hero!!!!”
All this said, do you think this sounds petty? It feels petty as I write about it. Maybe it’s the hyperpartisan political environment that causes people to argue over stuff like this, but it’s definitely petty.
You don’t want to completely distort the past, but the idea that Dr. King was a conservative because you’ve claimed certain values as only conservative values is laughable. Trying to make the argument someone’s legacy belongs to you based on some cherry picked lines makes you laughable. True, everyone values certain things more than other things, but the idea that an entire group of people reject something like “individualism” is nothing short of self-serving garbage.
The truth is that like most of us, Dr. King didn’t fit under just one label. After giving it serious thought for the better part of Dr. King’s holiday weekend, the only conclusion I’ve drawn is that the idea of trying to “reclaim” Dr. King’s legacy for any one group is ridiculous.
The aforementioned ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is inspiring, but a line from his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ is what I believe to be King’s most important message:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
As long as Americans continue to fight the good fight, for the civil rights of all people, to help those less fortunate, to do what’s right even though it’s hard, to do better than the status quo, to learn history’s lessons, we can all safely call what Dr. King left behind our own.
We’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve come so far since The Civil Rights Act of 1964. There’s nothing for anyone to reclaim.
His legacy has always belonged to all of us.