Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Busch on King

Andy Busch on Martin Luther King, as a response to Ricks Perlstein’s attack on him (and the Ashbrook Center) in the latest TNR. Very good!

Discussions - 23 Comments

A much needed retort to the TNR article, but we should also remember that King’s support for affirmative action was not a "late" epiphany. King wrote in favor of "compensatory or preferential treatment" or "special measures" the same year (1963) he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech--where he made the comment about character versus color as the true standard for individual judgment. To be sure, he defended preferences by expanding its application beyond blacks to include the "disadvantaged" simply, i.e., to include "poor whites," whom he saw as "the derivative victims of slavery" (see King, Why We Can’t Wait [1963, 1964], chap. 8, with the famous "content of their character" statement as the book’s epigram ). Today we should honor what we consider honorable in King’s legacy, which Andy Bush points out, but know that his is an ambiguous legacy for those elements that work at cross-purposes against the principle of human equality.

A fine piece. If King’s true message was that "sometimes, doing things that terrify people is the only recourse to injustice," then wouldn’t we logically have to praise Timothy McVeigh?

Fine article by Andy; just correction by Lucas. Most legacies are ambiguous, and the holiday is as much for the completion of the promise of the original Constitution as to honor a courageous but flawed man. I always tell my classes that segregation was overcome because the "white moderates" MLK justly criticized actually listened and responded to the criticism.

Excellent article and discussion. But I have a question for Lucas and Andrew . . . If it is true (I will go look it up as I think I have the book) that King favored preferences not just for blacks but for the "disadvantaged" of all races on the grounds that all were victims of the injustice of slavery (which, to some extent, I believe to be true--though how much NOW is very difficult to say) then is it fair to say that King in so doing parted company with a sound view of human equality or even the kind of conservatism we generally espouse? If the preferences were not to be based on race but, rather, on an attempt to redress a specific social injustice and applied across the board to all of its victims, then it seems to me a more plausible argument. I doubt very much that I would have favor such a policy--though my opposition (especially now) would come not from a sense of its basic injustice as much as from a sense that it is impracticable and unwieldy and might, therefore, do more harm than good. (Such a policy might have made a great deal of sense, however, immediately after the Civil War.) But this is more of a policy disagreement than a disagreement over principle, right? Or am I missing something?

Someone should also post Allan Ryskind’s article on King from Human Events. It explains that the FBI wiretapping of King in the JFK years was completely justified -- something that, today, probably not one in 10 conservatives knows. MLK had two close professional/political associates who were capital-C Communists: Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell. Levison was an especially important influence and King’s closest white friend. King lied about this communist connection repeatedly. An administration that didn’t wiretap him would have been irresponsible. Let’s not let political correctness hide the full truth about King. He is the liberals’ greatest American hero, bar none. He is also the object of almost Orwellian levels of propaganda in the schools. While I agree that King was heroic and accomplished much good, he was a very badly flawed hero, and not one who serious conservatives -- if they’re courageous -- can celebrate uncritically.

True Right, pick up the volumes by Taylor Branch, particularly the second, Pillar of Fire read the FBI-related parts, and you’ll see that, whether the tapping was justified or not, it was utilized for very dubious black-mail-like purposes--Hoover at his very worst, behaving like a tyrant. And if you read the first volume, Parting the Waters , you’ll see that Stanley Levison simply was an American hero, that is, he was totally instrumental in keeping King’s SCLC going, and keeping the movement on the right track. That said, largely, we think, out of his anti-McCarthyism, Levison did serve as a secret fund-raiser to the captial C American Communist Party to pay for trial expenses around 1949. And maybe there is info on him that has or will come out that will paint him in darker colors, but I think it’s important to stress the fact that the record shows he served America far more than he harmed it. Hoover always wanted to find Levison in bed with the Soviets, but never could, as far as I know, which ain’t much.

I just said that the wiretapping was justified. Any abuse of the recordings is another issue. The communists had reasons for promoting the civil rights movement, and you’re naive if you think
they couldn’t, or didn’t, influence it.
I have read "Parting the Waters," and I don’t recall a serious treatment of the Levison issue. Even excellent scholars can be blind -- or dishonest.
This is especially true when we’re talking about a person like King, who unlike almost any other historical figure has been largely untouchable and remains so.

I think Carl Scott has it right. Hoover had no grounds for believing there was Communist subversion at work in King’s entourage. Hoover (like many other Americans at the time) seemed to think that civil rights agitation, as such, was subversion. He got away with it because both Kennedy and Johnson, out of fear of him, did not stop him.

Communist involvement with Black activists is of course well documented. I draw nothing like True Right’s conclusion regarding King.

Good response, True Right, but do recognize that King just has been a hero to lot of people, myself included, and that there are some good reasons for this. And the New Left was right that American anti-communism could have its harmful aspects, and I think the attempt to tar the SCLS as commie would be exhibit A. Of course, the New Left drew the insane lesson from such instances that one had to be an anti-anti-communist.

Having said that, two things keep nagging me about King.

The first, is the plagiarism of his dissertation. It bothers me a lot more than his marital infidelity, which, yeah, bothers me. It really casts a pall on everything he did to know that he pulled a fast one coming out of the gates, built up his intellectual creds without earning them. A TERRIBLE example, and so very ugly-American: "Son, don’t actually waste your time doing original work, but do as King Jr. did, fake it, so you can get out into the real world that much faster. And accomplish real stuff." And King Jr. did accomplish very real stuff by getting into his Montgomery pulpit at the right time. Makes the example that much worse.

But the second is less about King, and more about the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, which is far more heroic anyhow. Lately I’ve been reading Todd Gitlow’s book on the 60s, trying to get a sense of how the New Left people got so extreme so quickly in their politics, to the point of actually belieiving by 67-69 that some sort of violent revolution was a real possibility or even likelihood. I can’t help but think that something about the the Civil Rights Movement’s use of non-violent resistance actually pushed a lot of folks into very unhealthy thought-directions. There is some subterrean connection (and it ain’t communism!) between the Christian/Ghandian tactics of the late 50s early 60s and the violence/disorder that engulfed the U.S. as a whole in the mid-to-late 60s. Herbert Storing has a masterful essay on this, that suggests that the "go slower" clergymen King criticizes in his Ltr from Birmingham Jail might have been right, and which, less speculatively, shows that peaceful civil disobedience can have very negative consequences, in terms of the reactions (think Malcolm X) it provokes and in terms of reducing the overall respect for the rule of law. That is, some sort of Civil Rights Movement had to occur, once it was clear that many Southern govts were not going to take the hint from Brown , but there is reason to think that the genuine heroics of King’s SCLC and the student’s SNCC also unleashed some very unhealthy dynamics, and that they actually should have been more moderate. See also on this Tamar Jacoby’s super-sobering Someone Else’s House for how badly the attempt to have a Northern civil rights movement turned out, with dynamics that directly contributed to the dysfunctionalities of 70s NYC, and alas, alas, to the near ruination of Detroit.

So I am aware, True Right, that the self-sacrificial heroism of the Civil Rights Movement we celebrate today in the person of King, has its darker and more ambigious shadings. I still say one finds some of the best of America in it.

That should be SCLC in the first paragraph, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, i.e., the organization King was the main spokesman for.

Oh, and thanks Dr. Morel for the info above--an inconvenient fact many King-citing foes of affirmative action need to know.

Me, Too!

I would also like to chime in with praise for Mr. Busch’s fine retort. Typically liberals find it very difficult to debate with conservatives on any level save an emotion or distractive one. Andy Busch just showed us again why this is so.

"sometimes, doing things that terrify people is the only recourse to injustice"

That’s what "Calypso" Keith Ellison and CAIR claimed when they conspired with the Flying Imams to terrorize the other passengers on that plane.

I admire King. He called us to be more Christian and more American. But the legacy is mixed. Preferences are poison and contrary to the plain words of the Civil Rights Act (and the Constitution). A government, a school or a business simply cannot prefer one race without disfavoring another. It has caused us to be caught in ever-finer nets. The ’rememdy’ in the ’remediation’ cannot be allowed, as it would put the Grievance Industry out of work.

I agree with all the comments in posts 9 and 12, including the favorable comments about King. I’m also glad we have a balanced discussion on this thread -- as befits a serious conservative blog.

Carl Scott, Why are you convinced that the violence of the late 60’s was not communist-inspired? The groups I was involved with were very much so inspired.


As to civil rights and the right to civility that each race, each person of any race, ought to enjoy, that those were missing in America made some people really angry. SCLC was despised by those who were angry as civil disobedience did not seem to make much progress, quickly. It’s much too complicated to get into with a blog comment. I hope those books have answers for you.

As you might have heard on Peter Schramm’s podcast with John Marini: from the movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott: This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.


Which is to say, we all understand the problems in Marin Luther King’s story. Let’s laud the best in his speeches; there’s good stuff there. I think we need his legend.

Sorry for the neglect to edit: Martin Luther King.

Kate -

Carl Scott, Why are you convinced that the violence of the late 60’s was not communist-inspired? The groups I was involved with were very much so inspired.

Will you say more? In the context of this thread, this statement cries out for some precision. We were talking about King and SCLC.

Kate has a good point. What I got from the Busch piece was that King left, at best, a dubious legacy. For pragmatic reasons, it may be good to pick up on the best of his legacy and celebrate that for America’s benefit. It seems that conservatives who embrace King whole-heartedly, embrace him for what they dream he was. This of course has its benefits like bringing together the country around one day to celebrate American principle (hopefully). However, because of the questionable legacy, we must realize that our interpretation will never be safe from reasoned critique.

What Andrew Busch actually wrote was a very interesting essay that transcends the particulars about Martin Luther King Jr. It seems to me that liberals are not really relativists. That is to say that liberals have definitions for justice and injustice. That is that rather than assuming the liberals have no framework one should assume that they do have a framework. That this framework is the dominant framework and that paridoxically therefore remmembering that "sometimes, doing things that terrify people is the only recourse to injustice" is a rather conservative proposition...That is George Bush terrifies the New York Times in the name of a higher moral law...which is a departure from what in the context of liberalism should count as an argument. Obviously I think Dr. Mosier is wrong in being snide about this and asking if we have to praise Timothy McVeigh... No one has to praise anyone and it would seem to be convoluted to contruct an ontological structure that would end up praising McVeigh. Basically what Andrew Busch really does a good job pointing out is that Martin Luther King’s passion was animated by a belief in an ontological structure that by virtue of being quasi-biblically based would find itself at odds with the orthodoxy of the New York Times. But modern Liberalism has an ontological structure...and in the New York Times it has its "established voice of stability". In all real truth it isn’t the case that liberalism doesn’t have its own orthodoxy...it is rather the case that in the dialectic between conservatives and liberals the only thing that can arrise is the dismisal of the foundational truths of the competing orthodoxies. Which Ironically is why the piece on King is entitled "Remmembering which King"?

But somewhat paradoxically it isn’t this dialectical relativism that rejects the notion that a natural law exists...In point of fact the natural law is the result of overcomming the established voices of stability"Ontological Structures" by the use of common sense/humanity. That is it is a belief that human beings can speak to things beyond the particular scope of the ideological lenses they wear... In the end, I believe Martin Luther King Jr. was paradoxically a relativist. Or more importantly Martin Luther King was a human being first and a philosopher second.

Kate, I bow to your experience. Of course, we’d like to hear more about the details of your experience! That is, if you don’t mind, what groups were you involved with?

The SCLC and the early SNCC had all sorts of ex-commies, pinksters, "better red than dead" type "pacifists"...but they also had genuine Christian pacifists, Ghandians, and every brand of liberal, as well as everyday Baptists and what-not dissatisfied with the caution of the NAACP. Were there Soviet-line communist agitators involved? I’m sure there were some. And with SDS, I’m even more sure...and once the New Lefties utterly lost their minds (from 66 on) using the excuse of Vietnam, very many took a non-Soviet line communism very seriously, which is why many took Mao, the evil worshipper of Revolution and exterminator of tens of millions, seriously.

But part of why the New Left was able to rally so many to its cause, was the disgusting uses that anti-communism had been put to in U.S. politics.

Many in the U.S. who opposed the ending of segregation in the South and the defacto second-class citizenship of blacks in the North, had said in the late 50s early 60s, "Don’t listen to these Civil Rights agitators...something’s fishy about them and it’s part of a communist plot." And they had real facts about the membership or ex-membership of so-and-so on their side, and so many a sincere anti-communist joined in their condemnation of King and his allies. A HUGE mistake on the part of the sincere anti-communists, because most of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement were entirely focused on its goals, and they got tarred with the anti-communist label. And even the commies/pinkos involved were focused on those goals. Many a conservative used the communist taint as an excuse to not really enage seriously with the issues raised by the CR movement. Racism, reactionary politics, and complacency hiding behind scurrilous (and occassionally true) charges. As I said, disgusting, and very discredting to the anti-communist/conservative cause, which partly explains the late-60s insanity and the deliberate, even VC-embracing, blindness of the New Left about the just nature of our GOAL in Vietnam and about the impossibility of reform communism. The real blame, of course, lies ultimately in the premises and motives the New Left began with.

Re: Julie Ponzi’s excellent question (see Comment 4) about the necessary incompatibility of human equality and affirmative action, I think she is right to suggest what is at the core of King’s defense of preferences for racial minorities and poor whites: an argument for reparations, which is what Thurgood Marshall essentially aergued in his lone dissent in the 1978 Regents v. Bakke affirmative action case.

That said, we do well to recall that the only time the term "affirmative action" is mentioned in the 1964 Civil Rights Act is precisely when the statute provides for a court-ordered compensation for proven racial or sex discrimination (e.g., a job, a raise, or a promotion illegally denied to an established victim): in other words, to repair damage done by an identifiable party to a proven victim. So, as Julie mentioned, the real question is how much damage have blacks today suffered due to slavery or segregation practiced several or many years ago? A very recent circuit court decision, with Posner (I think) writing the decision, ruled that lawsuits seeking reparations for blacks from companies involved in the slave trade (or using slaves as collateral for loans, etc.) have no merit because of statutes of limitations.

Steve Thomas, No, I was not in SCLC. I was looking at the large paragraph in Carl Scott’s comment, There is some subterranean connection (and it ain’t communism!) between the Christian/Ghandian tactics of the late 50s early 60s and the violence/disorder that engulfed the U.S. as a whole in the mid-to-late 60s. and no, I do not really want to talk about it.


How’s this. More radical groups mingled, finding or at least looking for common cause and often across racial lines. They didn’t care about race in fact and in principle. After the fall of the USSR when documents were opened, I was not all that surprised to find that groups that had sent representatives to talk to us had been funded by the USSR. They encouraged the idea of "revolution" and violence in the streets. This has to be documented, somewhere.

Kate - OK, of course. My other motive for asking (besides the SCLC point) was that by the late ’60s the CPUSA was pretty moribund. But there were other groups, Progressive Labor, for example, that were more aggressive and more manipulative/ provocative. Please understand: I will not be at all surprised to learn that there was stuff going on that relative innocents like us (I was an anti-Marxist anti-war liberal) knew nothing about at the time.

Lucas: Thanks for your reply but I still don’t think you have quite answered my question. Do you mean to suggest that Kings support for preferences puts him at odds with your view because of principle or practicalities? In other words, if his idea of "affirmative action" included a broad class of victims not defined by race but by a common thread of perceived injustice, then King’s view of affirmative action should be distinguished from the view of current "civil rights" leaders. Right? If that is right it seems that one might disagree with King for practical reasons about this particular policy recommendation but embrace his larger principles and see them as perfectly consistent with a Lincolnian understanding of human equality. Right? I am genuinely asking the question, not making an assertion.

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