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William F. Buckley on Dr. King (Update)

We honor King when we try to apply his example to our times. William F. Buckley on Martin Luther King:

We read the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life we celebrate while tending to ignore the essence of his beliefs, acclaimed by him (as by Abraham Lincoln) as the ground of his idealism.  A bizarre paradox in the new secular order is the celebration of Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday acclaimed as the heartbeat of articulated idealism in race relations, conscientiously observed in our schools [think of all the colleges and public schools that ignore national holidays such as Veterans Day--but recognize the King holiday] with, however, scant thought given to Dr. King's own faith. What is largely overlooked, in the matter of Dr. King, is his Christian training and explicitly Christian commitment.  Every student is familiar with the incantation, "I have a dream." Not many are familiar with the peroration.  The closing words were "... and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together." [speech honoring the Heritage Foundation, Oct. 20, 1999, p. 472]

The speech, from collected Buckley speeches, is available via google books.

Teaming with secular media, the Obama Administration is clearly hostile toward organized religion, in particular the Catholic Church.  Would King have stood for the churches or the Obama program?  Would he have joined the March for Life?

Update:  The Buckley speech can also be found here, with some added commentary, as Michelle notes in the comments below.  Please read Lucas Morel's comment as well--an excerpt from his MLK Day remarks.

Categories > Religion

Discussions - 13 Comments

Here are my brief remarks delivered yesterday at a panel of town-and-gown folks on the Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend and week-long commemoration at my campus in Lexington, Virginia:

I want to share two things about King—one politically and one spiritually.

On the political front, King famously told us of a dream “deeply rooted in the American dream.” But this wasn’t a dream of something entirely new, but something old worth holding onto and therefore living up to. He reminded us of what is best in our American heritage: a truth announced in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.” He called this our American creed. It was a “promise” to which “every American was to fall heir.” A promise that all would be “guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” To the extent that King had political hopes for the modern civil rights movement, it was the hope “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” And so on the political front, I thank King for finding something in our nation’s past that was worth holding onto, something worth fighting for, and passing on to future generations. Lose this, and we lose the heart of what it means to be an American.

Of course, you can’t talk about King without talking about his spirituality. Remarkably, even though King was a fervent Christian, he was able to speak to a diverse American community. So on the spiritual front, I thank King for finding a way to speak what he believed to be God’s truth in a way that brought conviction to Americans of all faiths. We should remember that his ultimate goal was not a Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act, as much as he labored for these momentous laws. His ultimate goal was what he called “the beloved community.” And this community, this fellowship of citizens, could not be the product of mere laws. It could only be the product of changed hearts. This change, King once wrote, was the result of God’s work in a person’s heart. He called this work agape, a Greek term that King translated as “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” It was this cosmic love that gave King hope that “the universe is on the side of justice.” When King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice,” borrowing from Theodore Parker, he was relying on this belief in a God who, in His own good time, would bring about justice for the oppressed.

So if we keep these points in mind, I think we will honor the best in his legacy, and help our nation, as King put it, “make real the promises of democracy.”

Although Buckley later became an admirer of King, while King was alive Buckley was a relentless opponent--Buckley even called the 1963 March on Washington a "mobocracy."

I'm glad Buckley reconsidered. (As I'm glad that conservatives now embrace King.) But quoting his praise of King without acknowledging that he actually worked against King during King's life is...sanitization and a re-writing of history. Buckley was a late convert to King's cause, not an ally.

That is absolutely right. It isn't even very distant history either. Reagan was opposed to making it a national holiday, for the same old reasons the first push to make it a holiday failled, namely "cost" (giving public sector employees a holiday!)

Buckley was almost certainly against labor, and King was strongly pro-labor(he was killed while supporting a public sector local), he was also strongly against the Vietnam war.

Wasn't there just recently some sort of "labor" dispute in Wisconsin and Ohio...

King is very much in the american tradition of the christian left, he was on the side of the Boston Police in 1919, argueing in retrospect that the distinctions between public and private sector employment law didn't make much sense. But I am sure Buckley would also be pro-Coolidge. Which means in effect that when you turn from the fluff, he was and remains opposed to King.

King also had some rather extreme policy positions, which no republicans (and few democrats) would back today.

Public sector employees never really recovered from the Boston fiasco(Coolidge was gov. of Mass at the time) until the 1960's when these organizations in effect united with the broader civil rights movement.

There are so many misleading and simply dishonest blog-posts here anymore (notice that I'm making a distinction) that it's hard to keep up with them.

This was a pretty shameless attempt at historical revisionism. King's ideas would - for the most part - put him within today's Christian left. Consider the Poor People's Campaign - definitely similar in their concept and themes to the Occupy movements.

"Jobs, income and housing were the main goals of the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution.[3] Under the "economic bill of rights," the Poor People's Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing."

Today, this sort of thing would be railed against by the Tea Party [whose 99% is that of straight, white, comfortable people railing against the classic Reagan trope of the (wink, nudge!) welfare queens in Cadillacs living large on the teat of Big Gummint] and called fascist Communist terrorism (etc.) by Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and the bulk of the NLT crowd. That is, you'd be nodding for Tenn. Gov. Buford Ellington's description of King's meetings with striking garbage haulers (Jesus wouldn't fraternize with such types, surely!) as "training 3,000 people to start riots." That seems quite Powerliney, very NLT-ish. And of course, with garbage-haulers you could really ratchet up the cheap shots about how stinky they are, like the "dirty hippies" of the 99% and the Occupy Wall St. movement!


“We believe the highest patriotism demands the ending of the war and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty”

(from Wiki's page on Poor People's Campaign)

But, really, why should one seriously consider anything that WF Buckley had to say about a great civil rights leader?

William F. Buckley (1957):

"[T]he central question that emerges... is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race."

Frankly, looking at GOP efforts to keep people from voting (esp. the poor, blacks, and students - based on the bogus premise of stemming the non-existent tide of voter fraud), I'm thinking Buckley's earlier attitudes - not his later opportunistic backpedaling - are those embraced by too many of today's conservatives. See Santorum's recent idiotic comments for more evidence of that.

Rick Perlstein covered this subject - conservatives and MLK - accurately and succinctly just a little over 4 years ago:

This quote (within the Perlstein piece) is pretty telling when looked at from the POV of our current national obsessions:

"President Johnson announced a national day of mourning: 'Together, a nation united and a nation caring and a nation concerned and a nation that thinks more of the nation's interests than we do of any individual self-interest or political interest--that nation can and shall and will overcome.'"

(You really should read the whole Perlstein article - he even mentions Andrew Busch and Ashbrook!)

The modern, dominant religious (that is, in the USA, Christian) right, which overlaps pretty heavily with the Tea Party, has such a narrowly hateful and aggressive version of conservatism that even an idea that is commonly associated with their religion's namesake figure - The Golden Rule - elicits impatient irritation and jeers:

But you all are completely free to kid yourselves that if King were alive today, he'd be marching with the Tea Party people, carrying a sign about Obama the Kenyan witch doctor, and standing behind a phalanx of police officers at UC-Davis, as they pepper-spray seated, peaceful protestors in the face. And he would take issue with any practical applications for The Golden Rule.

"There are so many misleading and simply dishonest blog-posts here anymore (notice that I'm making a distinction) that it's hard to keep up with them."

And you are the King of Misleading and Dishonest, so I suggest that you practice what you preach pumpkin.

King was right on principle and right on religion. But his teaching of civil disobedience was incoherent, contradictory and a bad example. If America was amenable to change, and it was, there was no justification for breaking her laws. If America was nothing more than a "while power structure," revolution was in order. That was the conclusion that Malcolm X drew. And King was ultimately seduced by left wingers who were not grounded in either principle or religion. He should be remembered for what he got right and ignored where he got things wrong.

white power structure

Right, Richard. The point of the post was to underscore the secularist ignoring of King's religious roots. We would not celebrate the man if it weren't for his transcendent message, which was rooted in his faith and theological scholarship. To overlook that is to transform King into a left-wing hack; it is to belittle him. Both some elements of the right and the secular left conspire on this point.

First of all I more or less agree with Craig S. above.

Also I would point out that his teaching of civil disobedience was not incoherent, contradictory and a bad example.

"If America was amenable to change, and it was, there was no justification for breaking her laws. If America was nothing more than a "while power structure," revolution was in order."

Neither statement is correct. On an element by element basis american law may have reflected a white male power structure. Yet, it was never "nothing more" than X, or this "power structure".

Even to say that America was amenable to change is problematic on "power structure grounds".

America is the subject, and a subject in the power structure is one who is placed under the control of a law or jurisdiction.

"That was the conclusion that Malcolm X drew." + Ken Thomas, "Both some elements of the right and the secular left conspire on this point."

So you conspire with Malcom X to see a binary result because you think America, or even Amerika is capable of being a meaningful subject.

If I am on the right and conspiring with Craig or Joel Mathis, I am simply conspiring to be precise with my use of subjects. If getting the history of MLK right is difficult, how much more difficult is getting the history of america right? Especially given federalism, that damnable garden of freedom where millions of power structures(ways of organizing subjects) bloom?

Lets just agree that the subject of america was seen thru many different lenses, and continues to be understood in this way. In some cases there is no justification for breaking its laws. In other formulations or conceptualizations revolution is necessary.

"Right, Richard. The point of the post was to underscore the secularist ignoring of King's religious roots. We would not celebrate the man if it weren't for his transcendent message, which was rooted in his faith and theological scholarship."

This affirmation of richard's comment makes no sense to me, seeing that richard actually said:

"King was right on principle and right on religion. But his teaching of civil disobedience was incoherent, contradictory and a bad example."

Yet, his teaching about civil disobedience actually stemmed from his "faith and theological scholarship" as well. But if the history-rich phrase that will forever be associated with him as the method he promoted for addressing injustices - civil disobedience - was, as he taught it, "incoherent, contradictory, and a bad example" (per richard), then what's to celebrate? That some minuscule percentage of people (maybe even some blacks) will be so ignorant or gullible as to buy the claptrap that conservatives such as Buckley & Co. had ever truly been a friend of MLK Jr's movement, had ever really "celebrated" him in any genuine manner, and not just to retroactively put conservatives on the right - politically useful - side of a righteous historical figure?

And sure, secular people didn't and don't focus so much on King's religious roots, but why should they? One could endorse a non-Christian mirror image of King's principles on the issues of the day, could endorse King's analysis of the situation, and could endorse King's proposed method for addressing the injustices, as well as admiring his charismatic ability to inspire so many (even non-believers) - without signing on to any religion at all.


MLK is the not the first one to be right on principle and wrong in tactics. It suffices to mention the abolitionists, who were right to object to slavery but wrong to reject constitutional means for ending it. King is better for explicitly acknowledging the fundamental principle of human equality as the moral basis for opposition to legal segregation, but was wrong to break laws.

You're right that one can reach the same conclusion on different grounds, but liberal Democrats were long cool to civil rights protests before Brown v. Board of Education was decided, and saw the light after King made the injustice of Jim Crow laws so palpable. (After all, southern Democrats were part of the ruling Democratic part coalition.) Even so, Brown is not grounded in anything more than social science which purported to find that segregation does psychological damage. There was no reference to the equality principle that King invoked successfully afterwards. To this day, liberal Democrats refuse to acknowledge that all men are created equal by nature, but equal only as a social construct to remedy the effects of past discrimination, and only in a form that discriminates against innocent parties of different races that never were guilty of discrimination themselves.

Why should secular people focus on King and the civil rights movement's Christianity? Because the movement simply cannot be divorced from religion. Blacks organized in churches, most of their leaders were ministers, they sang religious songs, they prayed together, they were joined by white ministers, priests, and nuns, many of their organizations, like SCLC, were religious, etc., etc. Moreover, try to read "Letter from Birmingham Jail," with its allusions to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Paul Tillich, natural law, and "I Have a Dream" with its countless allusions to Christianity and biblical language, without Christianity and it doesn't make sense. You can try to cut and paste and be satisfied with what's left over, but you are being completely ahistorical.

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