I published this exactly a year ago on the New Republic's web site. It is of more than passing relevance to this .
Day of Reckoning
Conservatives still don't get Martin Luther King.
When Martin Luther King was buried in Atlanta, the live television coverage lasted seven and a half hours. 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." Richard Nixon called King "a great leader--a man determined that the American Negro should win his rightful place alongside all others in our nation." Even one of King's most beastly political enemies, Mississippi Representative William Colmer, chairman of the House rules committee, honored the president's call to unity by terming the murder "a dastardly act."
Others demurred. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond wrote his constituents, "[W]e are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case." Another, even more prominent conservative said it was just the sort of "great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break."
That was Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, arguing that King had it coming. King was the man who taught people they could choose which laws they'd break--in his soaring exegesis on St. Thomas Aquinas from that Birmingham jail in 1963: "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. ... Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong."
That's not what you hear from conservatives today, of course. What you get now are convoluted and fantastical tributes arguing that, properly understood, Martin Luther King was actually one of them--or would have been, had he lived. But, if we are going to have a holiday to honor history, we might as well honor history. We might as well recover the true story. Conservatives--both Democrats and Republicans--hated King's doctrines. Hating them was one of the litmus tests of conservatism.
The idea was expounded most systematically in a 567-page book that came out shortly after King's assassination, House Divided: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther King, by one of the right's better writers, Lionel Lokos, and from the conservative movement's flagship publisher, Arlington House. "He left his country a legacy of lawlessness," Lokos concluded. "The civil disobedience glorified by Martin Luther King [meant] that each man had the right to put a kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on laws that met with his favor." Lokos laid the rise of black power, with its preachments of violence, at King's feet. This logic followed William F. Buckley, who, in a July 20, 1967 column titled "King-Sized Riot In Newark," imagined the dialogue between a rioter and a magistrate:
"You do realize that there are laws against burning down delicatessen stores? Especially when the manager and his wife are still inside the store?"
"Laws Schmaws. Have you never heard of civil disobedience? Have you never heard of Martin Luther King?"
King was a particular enemy of Chicago's white ethnics for the marches for open housing he organized there in 1966. The next year, the Chicago archdiocese released a new catechism book. "One of the leaders of the Negro people is a brave man named Martin Luther King. ... He preaches the message of Jesus, 'Love one another.'" Chicago Catholic laymen, outraged, demanded an FBI investigation of the local clergy.
We know about the Chicagoans who hated King enough to throw bricks at him. We have forgotten that, while such hooliganism was universally reviled, the reviling establishment also embraced Reagan-like arguments about why that was only to be expected. Upon King's assassination, The Chicago Tribune editorialized: "A day of mourning is in order"--but this was because civil disobedience had finally won the day. "Moral values are at the lowest level since the decadence of Rome," the editors argued, but only one of their arguments was racial: "If you are black, so goes the contention, you are right, and you must be indulged in every wish. Why, sure, break the window and make off with the color TV set, the case of liquor, the beer, the dress, the coat, and the shoes. We won't shoot you. That would be 'police brutality.'" Another was: "At countless universities, the doors of dormitories are open to mixed company, with no supervision."
The conservative argument, consistent and ubiquitous, was that King, claiming the mantle of moral transcendence, was actually the vector for moral relativism. They made it by reducing the greatest moral epic of the age to a churlish exercise in bean-counting. Shortly after the 1965 Selma voting-rights demonstrations, Klansmen shot dead one of the marchers, a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzza, for the sin of riding in a car with a black man. Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended her funeral. No fair! Buckley cried, noting that a white cop had been shot by a black man in Hattiesburg shortly thereafter; "Humphrey did not appear at his funeral or even offer condolences." He complained, too, of the news coverage: "The television cameras showed police nightsticks descending upon the bodies of the demonstrators, but they did not show the defiance ... of those who provoked them beyond the endurance that we tend to think of as human." (In actual fact, sheriff's officers charged into the crowd on horseback swinging rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire.)
By now you may be asking: What is the point of this unpleasant exercise? Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations on ideological sins? Well, not every conservative wrong has been righted. It's true that conservatives today don't sound much like Buckley in the '60s, but they still haven't figured King out: Andrew Busch of the Ashbrook Center for Public Policy, writing about King's exegesis on just and unjust laws, said, "In these few sentences, King demolishes much of the philosophical foundation of contemporary liberalism" (liberals are moral relativists, you see, and King was appealing to transcendent moral authority); Busch (speaking for reams of similar banality you can find by searching National Review Online) also said that "he rallied his followers with an explicitly religious message" and thus "stands as a stinging rebuke to those today who argue that religion and politics should never mix"; and Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation wrote in National Review Online that "[a]n agenda that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides takes us away from King's vision" (not true, as historians have demonstrated). Still, why not honor their conversion on its own terms?
The answer is, if you don't mind, a question of moral relativism versus transcendence. When it comes to Martin Luther King, conservatives are still mere bean-counters. We must honor King because there wasn't a day in his life after 1955 when he didn't risk being cut down in cold blood and still stood steadfast. Conservatives break down what should be irreducible in this lesson into discrete terms--King believed in points X, Y, and Z--but now they chalk up the final sum on the positive side of the ledger. But this misses the point: King alone among contemporary heroes is worthy of a national holy day not because he mixed faith and politics, nor because he enunciated a sentimental dream. It was because he represented something truly terrifying.
When King was shuttling back and forth to Memphis in support of striking garbage workers, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington typified the conservative establishment's understanding of him: He was "training 3,000 people to start riots." What looks today obviously like transcendent justice looked to conservatives then like anarchy. The conservative response to King--to demonize him in the '60s and to domesticate him today--has always been essentially the same: It has been about coping with the fear that seekers of justice may overturn what we see as the natural order and still be lionized. But if we manage to forget that, sometimes, doing things that terrify people is the only recourse to injustice, there is no point in having a Martin Luther King Day at all.