[This article appeared in the Conservative Review, February 1991, pp. 18-22.] 



Martin Luther King, Jr.: Time for a Sobering Reassessment 

Dwight D. Murphey 

The true legacy from Martin Luther King, Jr. may well be indicated for the fact that soon after American troops arrived in Saudi Arabia, his son, Martin Luther King III, a commissioner in Fulton County, Georgia, publicly urged black soldiers to refuse to fight. In this context it is good to recall the decision that was made to seal all FBI records relating to Martin Luther King’s activities for a period of fifty years – a decision that was announced only shortly before Congress made “Martin Luther King Day” a national holiday. Some states are under considerable pressure because they have declined to ratify the holiday. It is necessary to keep this debate in perspective.

Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s gloriously talented wordsmith, had a column in The Wall Street Journal on November 21 in which she spoke of “seven unifying myths” that bind Americans together and that she felt should be taught to the children of all new immigrants. (In this, she used “myth” in its favorable sense) One of them paints a glowing picture of “the civil rights struggle”: “A massive peaceful resistance to a tradition that was a sin… -- and all because America had a conscience to which an appeal could be made.”

Although in her brief comment she did not mention Martin Luther King, Jr., the myth surrounding him must certainly be part of that to which she refers. There is no greater personification of the sanguine view of the civil rights struggle than King, who during the years since his death in 1968 has been elevated to what M. Stanton Evans calls “secular sainthood”. Everywhere there are streets and boulevards named after him; his picture stands out on the walls of countless classrooms across the nation; we celebrate a “Martin Luther King Day” in January even though the traditional holidays commemorating the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln in February have been squashed together into a considerably lesser observance; and, most recently, our great national arbiter of social justice, the National Football League, has undertaken to punish the voters of Arizona precisely because they elected not to observe such a holiday. 

The Components of the Myth

            The aura that surrounds King sanitizes him in a way that the 1960s New Leftists would certainly have decried as a “cooptation.” The myth consists of certain discrete ideas: 

  • That King was a high-minded man of love and non-violence, giving expression to noble dreams of equality and justice.

  • That at the same time he engaged in a whirlwind of activity that used “non-violent direct action,” also known as “civil disobedience,” as a legitimate and desirable lever in a victorious effort to move what had been an unresponsive and fundamentally unjust society.

  • That accordingly he stood at the forefront of a progressive movement that has moved America toward its truest ideals.

With deep respect for Peggy Noonan, I beg to differ with such an image, either of the civil rights struggle in general or of Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. (My wife and I liked Noonan’s recent book so much that we could hardly wait to pack a copy off to our daughter for Christmas. But such ties of thought and feeling should nor deter conservatives, and Americans in general, from reflecting seriously upon such matters as “our heritage of civil disobedience” and the secular beatification of King. Peggy Noonan had quite rightly stressed the importance of a people’s myths – the idealizations that a people live and die by.) 

Problems with the Myth

            The problems with this particular myth are many: First, it was not freely adopted. It did not arise spontaneously out of the sensibilities of the American people. It has been foisted on us with well-nigh totalitarian ferocity and presumption – as witness precisely the recent fulminations by Paul Tagliabue of the National Football League. For many years, the climate of opinion in this country has been dominated by an unholy alliance: a combination of our Left-liberal media neurotics, on the one hand, and the millions of acquiescent pseudo-educated sophisticates, on the other, who accept every new fashion in their eagerness to conform. If we accept the civil rights and King myth, we might as well as be prepared, for equally poor reasons, to embrace all others put forward by the same axis.

            Second, that part of the myth that holds that civil disobedience is a legitimate means to social ends in a free society should not be accepted as an innocent premise. Mass violations of law, even if ostensibly they foreswear the initiation of violence, play no part in the theory of a free society, which provides constitutional processes for legal and institutional change. “Civil disobedience,” applied on a mass basis, must be understood for what it is: a technique of revolution. (Witness Sorel’s favorite tactic, the General Strike.) This is true even if the “direct action” manages to skirt violence. It is even more graphically evident when the mass action leads (contrary, it is said, to the intentions of its sponsors) to the burning of cities (or, as in India in the wake of Gandhi, to the slaughter of many thousands.) 

Two Opposing Paradigms for Improving the Harmony of the Races.

            Third, it is a terrible mistake to think that direct action and legislation have been the most constructive way to ameliorate the condition of minorities in the United States or to improve the harmony of the races. The two great paradigms for such amelioration were put forward a century ago by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois. Washington called upon his fellow blacks to advance their position by hard work and earned respect. DuBois demanded social justice “now,” without such a foundation first having been laid.

            To those who perceive the theory of a free society entirely in model-building terms, DuBois was correct – everyone is entitled, at all times, to an entire measure of rights, whatever the situation. But to those who see a free society functionally in human terms, recognizing the terrible exceptions that history has sometimes imposed, Washington’s prescription seems far the wiser. Coercion – through legislation or otherwise – is anathema to a free society. The slow growth of fraternity through mutual respect is far preferable to a forced fraternity. (And it is much more likely to be permanently successful.)

            It is an unspoken premise of the myth of the civil rights struggle that the condition of Negroes had not been improving rapidly in the United States prior to the campaign of civil disobedience, and that therefore coercive means were essential. But this vastly distorts the truth. The civil rights struggle is a classic case of a “revolution of rising expectations.” In all such revolutions that follow in the wake of broadly improving conditions, the activists step in to claim credit for achievements that have actually been won by much less noticeable subterranean forces. (Before proceeding, let me explain why I use the now-forbidden word “Negroes.” Research for this article has reminded me that the term “blacks” became a universal substitute after “black power” militants insisted on it in 1966-7. I would feel uncomfortable adopting the insisted-upon semantic at the very time that I am arguing that we should not succumb to such things.)

            The indisputable fact is that the condition of Negroes had been improving rapidly prior to the confrontations of the 1960s. Who can say that it would not be considerably better than it now is, even, if the quieter processes had been allowed to continue? I would refer readers to Charles Murray’s excellent book Losing Ground for documentation on precisely this point. 

The Specifics about King and “Non-Violence” – They Can’t Sustain a Valid Myth

            Fourth, the specific facts about “non-violence” and of Martin Luther King’s own role are such that a myth can’t be based on them, but rather must be based on some near-total fabrication. (There must always be some tension between objective truth as sought by scholars and the idealizations introduced by myth. But this is reduced if the myths build upon solid materials. Heroes and Great Lessons, though simplifications, need not depart from truth – and will not, if a society embraces real heroes and real lessons.) 

King’s Personal Qualities

            Recent revelations, which have come to light despite years of effort by the myth-makers to keep them from being known, tell us that Martin Luther King, Jr., was far from being worthy of adulation. The unvarnished truth – dare we speak it! – is that he was a manipulator and a cheat.

            A friend in my Wednesday breakfast group advised me, “don’t mention his adultery.” No doubt cheating on one’s wife comports sufficiently with the contemporary ethos that it is “out of tune” for anyone to make a moral point of it. But a reevaluation of King must come, if it is to come at all, from those who care about such things. Such people should read Ralph David Abernathy’s 1989 autobiography And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, where Abernathy, one of King’s closest associates, reluctantly reveals King’s voracious extramarital sexual appetite.

            Most recently, the facts have been laid bare about King’s plagiarism. The January 1991 issue of Chronicles compares long passages in King’s 1955 Boston University doctoral dissertation with a 1952 dissertation by Jack Stewart Boozer. The copying was word-for-word – not just of incidental sentences, but of passage after passage. Even typographical errors and mistakes of footnoting were copied. That issue of Chronicles is one of the most amazing, and heroic, ever published, and ought to go down in history as such. The article, by Theodore Pappas, is preceded in the same issue by a letter from Jon Westling, the president ad interim of Boston University, in which Westling asserts that “not a single reader has ever found any nonattributed or misattributed quotations, misleading paraphrases, or thoughts borrowed without due scholarly reference in any of its 343 pages.”  If there were any justice in contemporary American society, which is the same society that has prosecuted the likes of Oliver North, many feel Westling should be drummed out of academia and King should be stripped of his doctorate. So far, however, there is no sign of either of these things happening. 

King as a Leader

            But it is still possible to argue that “King may not have been what we thought he was as a man, but nevertheless he should be honored as a great leader in a just cause.” That is why I have thought it necessary, in what follows, to recall an illustrative episode from King’s time as a leader. There is nothing better than the New Politics Convention of 1967 to illustrate just how bankrupt that leadership was.

            Chicago’s Palmer House over the Labor Day weekend in 1967 was the scene of what must certainly have been the most incredible agglomeration of assorted misfits and totalitarians in American political history – and, as one of its high points, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the keynote oration. Bongo drums accompanied a chant of “Kill Whitey… Kill Whitey… Kill Whitey” outside the Chicago Coliseum as King spoke to the opening night rally on Thursday, August 31. “We have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of this Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifices,” King intoned. “The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white.” He called for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power” and, speaking in opposition to a “morbid fear of Communism,” urged Americans to support revolution “all over the globe.”

            Some commentators have sought to diminish King’s role, despite his having been the keynoter. They say, as James Ridgeway did in The New Republic, that the speech “was a bore to the delegates.” But the New York Time’s story the day following the speech reported that “Dr. King was warmly applauded by the 3,500 people in the steaming Chicago Coliseum.”

            What a zoo it was! Andrew Kopkind in the New Statesman reported that “the Trotskyists were there, the Maoists, the Independent Socialists, the New Left, the community organizers, the academics, the peaceniks, the pacifists, the rich fellow-travelers, the angry liberals.” A black caucus, which despite its small numbers towered over the entire convention, met “continuously in secrecy,” The Nation reported, “with shaven-headed bodyguards at the doors.” The New York Times spoke of “fiercely mustached students in dungarees, straight-haired sandaled girls in micro-skirts and Negroes in African attire…”

            This was the convention at which Ronald Lockman, a member of the Communist W.E.B. DuBois Club, made a sensation when he stood in his infantry uniform and declared his intention to violate his orders to go to Vietnam. After wild cheering, the delegates “gave Lockman a standing ovation,” Ridgeway tells us, “chanting over and over ‘Hell no, we won’t go.’”

            After days of separate deliberation, the black caucus emerged with its demand that the convention approve, without amendment, a 13-point resolution, which the delegates then did, by a 3-1 margin. The New York Times reported, in its magazine feature on September 24, that the supporters of these 13 points “took their lead” from a certain Septima Clark, “an elderly lady associated with (Martin Luther King’s) Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” The points started with the preamble that “We, as black people, believe that a United States system that is committed to the practice of genocide, social degradation (sic), the denial of political and cultural self-determination of Black people, cannot reform itself; there must be revolutionary change.” From there they went on to “demand that this conference … give total and unquestionable support to all national people’s liberation wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America, particularly Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, and Venezuela.”

            The manifesto got into a little trouble with the King forces over its condemnation of “the imperialistic Zionist war,” a condemnation that the points were quick to add “does not imply anti-Semitism.” The Nation reported that “Rev. Martin Luther King himself sent a secret last-minute appeal through his aide, Jose Williams… to significantly modify the statement.” (It is notable that the rest of the points didn’t seem to King to require any imperative modification; and the debate for them, as we have seen, was led by one of his people.)  

Abandonment of the “No Collaboration with Communists” Principle

             This convention was notable, too, for being the first public outing of the Communist Party in several years. After World War II, there had been a split in American Left-liberalism over whether to include Communists in its activities. The Americans for Democratic Action had been formed explicitly for the purpose of repudiating such a collaboration. (This was an immensely significant point. The post-World War II history of the Third World – such as, say, in Nicaragua – would have been vastly clarified and improved if democratic socialists all over the world had refused to work with Communists.) This was a principle that the American Left abandoned with the New Politics Convention. Although the King himself stuck his head in the sand and said “to my knowledge there are no Communists in the National Conference for a New Politics,” the Communist Party, U.S.A., sent an official delegation of seven “observers.” And the New York Times spoke of “the sudden open appearance of the Communists… as one after another got the microphone….” 

The Fascism of the Left

            It is commonplace to remark the similarities between the Far Left and fascism. Parallels in style and substance were everywhere in evidence during the New Politics Convention. James Forman (referred to about equally in the literature as “Foreman”) of S.N.C.C., flanked by bodyguards, included in his speech a cry of “One Africa, One People!,” strangely reminiscent of “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer!” When a delegate cried out “That’s dictatorship” after Forman instructed the delegates to stand up if they favored his call for a boycott of General Motors and then announced that it had carried, Forman yelled back “Yes, and I’m the dictator.” (After some delegates then walked out, he claimed he had just been joking.)

            It is interesting that Richard Blumenthal reported in The Nation that Carlos Russell was chosen as leader by the black caucus without a vote, through what Blumenthal referred to as “African consensus.” This is similar to the fuhrerprinzip that was a common feature to the German Youth Movement before and after World War I and that was incorporated into Nazi ideology. The theory was that powerful personalities would simply rise to the top and would embody the sense of the group within themselves. This was the basis for the Nazi’s claim to be more truly democratic than the parliamentary systems.

            When Floyd McKissick of C.O.R.E. came to speak, a starkly military scene occurred. Two hundred Black Nationalists “marched in solemn ranks.” according to Gary Allen’s first-hand report. Then as McKissick spoke he was “flanked by two of his lieutenants, both reportedly armed at all times.”

            But these things had to do with the style of fascism. Its substance appeared in the intimidation imposed by the Black Caucus and the conformity of virtually all others. The votes in the convention had originally been allocated according to the number of activists back home a delegate represented. This had led to 28,498 votes going to white radicals, some 5,000 to blacks. But the Black Caucus demanded that it be given 28,498 votes, too, to make it equal to all the rest of the convention, and an equal number of seats on all committees. The convention, eager to show its “solidarity,” caved in to this by a 2-1 margin. The numbers of the Black Caucus segregated themselves, sitting in a special section marked off with a red sash. As each resolution came up for a vote, “a lad in the front row of the Black Caucus,” the New York Times reported, “raised the large pink card that represented 28,498 votes.”

            This continued even though the more militant “blacks” left the convention eventually to hold their own convention at a South Side church, and, as the New York Times tells us, “representatives of (Martin Luther King’s) Southern Christian Leadership Conference took over.” The ensuing direction by SCLC caused no repudiation of so ridiculous a scene, nor any denunciation of the bitterly anti-American and pro-revolutionary revolutionary resolutions enacted earlier. 

What This Tells Us About King’s Leadership

            Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, championing of the “principle of non-violence” depends very critically upon whether there can be a sharp delineation between “non-violence” and the horrors of actual revolution.

             While there was much in King’s rhetoric over the years that spoke of love and reconciliation, and while it is a mistake to assume that such protestations are not held to sincerely by those who voice them, it is worth noting that his keynote address’s call for support for the revolutions, most of them under Communists leadership, around the world was far removed from a rhetoric of non-violence (unless we are to suppose that he did not know that people were being killed in those revolutions). Thus, his rhetoric was by no means consistent.

            But even if he had been consistent with it, it is impossible to credit an activist with true non-violence when he is conducting mass marches and boycotts in the midst of burning cities and hotheads who are calling for violence. Lionel Lokos, in his excellent book House Divided: The Life and Legacy of the Martin Luther King, has it right when he says “King never hurled a Molotov cocktail, but he never stopped faulting society for those who did. King never looted a store, but he never stopped defending those who felt that poverty gave them a license to steal. King never hid on a roof with a rifle and sniped at the police, but he never stopped picturing the police department as a sort of home-grown Gestapo.”

            Even the principle of “Civil disobedience” itself, as indicated earlier, is inconsistent with a free society’s adherence to the Rule of Law. Civil disobedience as a doctrine validates lawlessness. This is bad enough in itself. But when lawlessness escalates to violence and societal breakdown, is it sufficient for the apostles of civil disobedience to say piously that “that’s not what we intended”? (A major legal principle, merely articulating a lesson from experience, is that “a person is taken to intend the natural and probable consequences of his acts.”) Lokos said it eloquently: “In the days following the tragic death of Martin Luther King, much was said about the legacy he left his country. Some called it a legacy of love. Some called it a legacy of peace. For myself, I am perfectly willing to grant his brilliance, his basic sincerity, his charismatic effect upon perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans – and still regretfully conclude that primarily Martin Luther King left his country a legacy of lawlessness. His concept of civil disobedience was exquisitely embroidered with “love” and “good will,” but stripped to its essentials it was the concept that every man could be his own judge and jury and legislator…” To this, he added: “The liberal’s protest that the rioters are being violent, while Martin Luther King was nonviolent, wholly misses the point. Once you permit a man to disobey laws he dislikes, you cannot later disapprove of the form that disobedience takes or the motivation behind it.”            

On True Heroes…

            If I would have us take down the pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., from our schoolhouse walls, it is not because I seek to deprive Americans of any race of their heroes. We need the myths to which Peggy Noonan alludes – if not precisely the ones she has enumerated, ideals nevertheless.

            All races, all peoples, have plenty among them who do not deserve admiration; at the same time, all races, all peoples, have their magnificence. There are many among them who qualify as true heroes. There have been real heroes in the past, if only we will identify them; and there will be real heroes in the future. We can be thankful that it does not all depend on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his status as an “American myth.”