Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Political Philosophy

Martin Luther King and the Great Tradition

Unappreciated is King's emphasis on natural law and the western tradition.  That emphasis gave legitimacy and moral transcendence to what could have been a merely lawless movement.  One sees this attention, for example, in his Lincoln Memorial speech, Letter from Birmingham Jail (about a third of the way down), and his final speech (see third paragraph).  Doubtless much of this derived from documents in the black American political tradition such as this extraordinary 1774 slave petition for freedom (it's a short document, RTWT and look at the last sentence): 

That legacy is what makes this American our greatest political spokesman for natural right and therefore our most sigfnificant conservative.

This book supports the argument here. 

Discussions - 18 Comments

Curious, Ken, how you -- or others here -- might answer this Newsweek essay:

(This is really a plea for a sound response to the piece, which I could then pilfer -- with links! -- later, as I'm scrambling to finish some paying work, yet procrastinating here and there.)

Here is what actual American conservatives wrote about King:

"For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery, they have been cracking the “cake of custom” that holds us together."
- National Review, September 7th, 1965

Other relevant statements from the same publication can be found here:

NR wasn't against King because of the hair-splitting reasons mentioned in your link. It was against King because it was FOR segregation, period.

NR wasn't against King because of the hair-splitting reasons mentioned in your link. It was against King because it was FOR segregation, period.

Hansel, here is a nuanced account of the relationship between WFB and the civil rights movement

It's more accurate to say that some conservatives thought segregation was superior to other possibilities. They were clearly wrong in not seeing Jim Crow laws as a legacy of slavery. Just as a Lincolnian conservatism proceeded judiciously against slavery, so the same would against segregation. Some on the right didn't get it back then and still don't get it now: e.g., Trent Lott declaring he was always in favor of affirmative action, after his loopy remarks about Strom Thurmond.

Ben: Gay marriage is simply a crazy idea and therefore subject to a different rule of reason than racial segregation.

It's funny how that Wash Post commentary fails to note when King appeals to Aquinas and Augustine saying that "a just law is a law that squares with the moral law or God's natural law." That would make the Manhattan Declaration very much in tune with King's Birmingham letter.

"Gay marriage is simply a crazy idea and therefore subject to a different rule of reason than racial segregation."

Well, Ken, that is as may be. As I've been following the coverage of the Prop. 8 trial in San Francisco, however, it seems to me that the plaintiffs have decided that throwing out the rules of reason altogether is a sound legal strategy. It might be a "crazy idea," but it also might just be crazy enough to work.

Hansel, if it is your position that National Review's editorial line is the same today as it was in 1965, you are wrong. If it is your position that National Review's editorial line in 1965 is really what most conservatives still believe today, you're nuts. And if it's your position that the position articulated by some conservatives in 1965 should tar conservatives always and evermore, you will lose that sophomoric game of tit-for-tat. I suggest you move on.

NR's "editorial line" isn't "the same today as it was in 1965" because the world has moved so far past NR. But NR's "editorial line" was explicitly to stop the movement of history, so I don't really credit them for that. I'll put it another way: if it had been left up to "conservatives" segregation would certainly have continued, in which case history wouldn't have moved on, in which case "conservatives" wouldn't have been forced to adopt new positions. Analogies can be made to gay marriage or whatever. You're a willy-nilly historical relativist, basically saying that conservatives should be judged historically, as if they have no claims beyond this or that historical moment. Or, at least, none that could have prevented them from supporting segregation when it was still in fashion.

However, my point wasn't to compare the views of NR now and then, but to compare alleged "conservatives" of a specific time and place; King was referred to as a conservative above, so I quoted from some his contemporary "conservatives". Readers can judge for themselves what that says about King, NR, and conservatism as an ideology for themselves.

Finally, "the position that the position articulated by some conservatives in 1965 should tar conservatives always and evermore", I would only say this: for many conservatives, or so-called conservatives, there is a cottage industry of saying how, say, this or that historical liberal is however many degrees from some quasi-Marxist or some such thing. Indeed, very common in defenses of neo-cons is to hear about how allegedly they became conservatives because liberals were just too soft communism, etc. - even though, if that were true, it would be many generations ago now. So, I say, if this sort of "game" is to be played, it should be played to the fullest extent.

Ben, please give us all where you post your Prop 8 and other good work. Thanks, look forward to reading it.

Thanks, Ken. I haven't been blogging the Prop. 8 trial to any great extent, but my collaborator Joel Mathis and I wrote our latest Scripps-Howard column about the circus aspect of it. You can read it here: (I should add, however, that we didn't write the subheads on the piece.)

Julie Ponzi has been good enough to link from time to time to the group blog that I write for. Some of that material is pretty lightweight. But some of it either ends up in the syndicated columns or as op-eds elsewhere. I've had a nice streak going lately with the Sacramento Bee.

Hansel, I referred to Clarence Thomas as a conservative, not to King--but both drew from a common resource, the natural law political tradition. They are both the legacy of those slaves who petitioned for their freedom back in 1774. What they have in common is more significiant than even those important issues that divide them.

Here's a fine quote from his April '67 Riverside Church speech:

"This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

A few quick comments on the above:
1. "Gay marriage" and the struggle for civil rights are much so that the former is actually closer to the slaveholders' demands to protect their "right to slavery." GM is a "crazy idea," as Ken puts it, because it is an attack on nature itself. The idea that one man can marry another is fully as unnatural as the idea that one man can own another.

2. There is this problem with King, I think: whether the standard of natural law and natural rights permits/requires civil disobedience. On my reading of Lincoln, e.g. Lyceum speech, I think he denied this--arguing that government by the consent of the people, expressed in periodic elections, was the right forum for getting rid of unjust laws, but that until that happens, all citizens should obey the law, even if unjust. One cannot forget that as President he enforced the fugitive slave laws, among the most outrageously unjust laws ever enacted in any country, and he well knew that.
3. I don't really think National Review in 1965 or ever, had any preference for segregation--though some of its associates may well have. I think they did have great doubt that equal rights could be realized and enforced without a "metanoia" in the soul, and they much feared the chaos, violence, destruction, and race hatred that--we must grant--have come beginning in the 60s. It is arguable, in other words, that NR was closer to Lincoln than King on the question of civil disobedience.

How Lincoln "enforced" Dred Scott and fugitive slave laws is an interesting issue.

Re Craig's citation of King: How often did King visit Hiroshima? The both brutal and too often futile tactics of the Vietnam War underline the need for quick and brutal measures (war without brutality being like football without contact). However many times King may have mentioned Hiroshima it was his Vietnam comments that drew attention.

Lincoln did not "enforce" Dred Scott except, presumably, on the litigants themselves, simply because a Supreme Court ruling is a decision in a case, not a "law" properly understood, at least until it meets certain conditions over a long period of time, as he explains brilliantly in his First Inaugural.

The authority to enact laws to capture fugitive slaves was express in the Constitution itself, and the Constitution and laws following it must be enforced by the Chief Executive, until changed. Lincoln saw that there was an even worse injustice involved in refusing to execute those monstrous laws, since he would have to violate his oath of office and, as I believe, deny that the Constitution itself is rooted in justice, even given the awful compromises (such as the fugitive slave law) required to ratify it.
An interesting question indeed!

Re King and Vietnam: the fact that one recognizes the provenance of natural law does not guarantee that one's political judgments are always prudent. Natural law's ability to guide political decisionmaking is rather limited, and if anything, it opens up the field for practical wisdom. Men equally committed to natural law and natural right can differ about the choices of when and how to fight a war such as Vietnam. King had no monopoly on a "natural law" understanding of the cruelties and blunders of the USG in its way of prosecuting it.

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