Thanks again to John Fea for a thought provoking post. He points us to a piece from Michael Kazin, who calls on conservatives to stop co-opting some of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings and activism, while ignoring other parts. Here is the beginning of his writing (which borders on rant at some points):
Leading conservatives seem to adore Martin Luther King. Jr. As president, George W. Bush called him a “second founder … who trusted fellow Americans to join [him] in doing the right thing.” In 2008, Michele Bachmann wrote, “though his life was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet, each of us has the power to ensure that his legacy never dies.” Last year, Glenn Beck told a huge crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, “the man who stood down on those stairs … gave his life for everyone’s right to have a dream.” And just last week, Charles Krauthammer celebrated the new King Memorial on the National Mall by calling its subject a “prophet” whose “movement” was “a profound vindication of the American creed.”
These figures may appreciate King’s citizen-activism and his religious zeal to distinguish right from wrong. But such paeans still sound quite bizarre coming from a Right that is opposing even the slightest attempt at stimulating the economy to help people who need jobs, good schools, and medical care. So it’s worth reminding these notables what King actually thought about the chronic ills of the American economy and how to remedy them.
To save them some time, I offer a few details, most of which are culled from the enlightening, prize-winning study, From Civil Rights to Human Rights, by the historian Thomas F. Jackson. As a student in the early 1950s, King read and admired such texts as The Communist Manifesto, Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward, and pro-socialist essays that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote during the Great Depression. When added to King’s firsthand observations of the conditions faced by menial workers, these writings persuaded him that a system that took “necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes” was both unjust and un-Christian. In 1965, King summed up his beliefs in a speech to the Negro American Labor Council, the union group which had done the most to organize the march on Washington two years earlier: “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”
Kazin is correct. I have heard many conservatives sing the praises of King, but ignore these more radical dimensions of his social program. On the other hand, it does seem that a person could agree with King on racial equality but not endorse his views on the economy. This is the problem with politicizing the past. I would think that a historical approach to King (as opposed to a political one) would call attention to his entire vision for America.
I would count myself among those who appreciate his takes on racial equality, and his call for Christians to act according to their conscience, but do not endorse his socialist leanings. I’m not sure what this means for me, but I thank Fea for pointing me to this reminder that sometimes we are quick to idealize one part of a person without acknowledging the total package.