Kazin: Conservatives Should Stop Appropriating Martin Luther King

Michael Kazin, scholar of populism at Georgetown, author of a wonderful biography of William Jennings Bryan, and co-editor of Dissent, is upset over the way conservative politicians and pundits–particularly George W. Bush, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and most recently Charles Krauthammer–have used the legacy of Martin Luther King to further their conservative agenda.

According to Kazin, appeals to King “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.”  He writes:

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.”

Not content to preach a broad critique, King advocated specific ways to reform the system. In 1963, he argued for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures” to help working people of all races. Only these, he felt, would make possible a class alliance with poor whites who were “confused … by prejudice that they have supported their own oppressors.” In 1965, King told a labor union audience that a huge public works program would do “more to abolish poverty than tax cuts that ultimately benefit the middle class and rich.” It would take guaranteed jobs and income, he believed, to turn the United States into a decent society.

Meanwhile, the preacher-activist forged alliances with left-wingers in the labor movement whom he thought were vital to fulfilling his vision. He worked closely with such fellow democratic socialists as Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and Michael Harrington and backed their difficult struggle to build a durable bond between the black freedom movement and the AFL-CIO. And King was murdered in Memphis where he had gone to aid black sanitation workers who were striking to win the right to collective bargaining, as well as overtime pay and workmen’s compensation. As in many cities at the time, Memphis officials would have nothing to do with public employee unions. They had defeated previous union drives by firing their leaders.

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.

3 thoughts on “Kazin: Conservatives Should Stop Appropriating Martin Luther King

  1. To consider MLK purely as an historical figure, one must recognize that as early as 1965-66 with the failure of his move to Chicago, he began to become irrelevant.


    By the time of his death in Memphis, his day-to-day activism was in the “where are they now” file, eclipsed by more radical black leaders on one hand, and made largely superfluous by the Great Society on the other, which was as much change as America was prepared to swallow.

    There is indeed a history lesson here, but probably not what Professor Kazin has in mind.


  2. “. . . it does seem that a person could agree with King on racial equality but not endorse his views on the economy.”

    Following Kazin, I'm not quite sure how this move is possible. For King racial equality and material equality were linked. If the argument is that racial inequality could be undone without material inequality being addressed, that seems to be something other than what King argued.


  3. 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 thanks, Johm, for pointing me to this reminder that sometimes we are quick to idealize one part of a person without acknowledging the total package.


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