Was Martin Luther King Really A Conservative?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Dinesh D’Souza uncorked a Martin Luther King Day thought experiment. The conservative author wrote on Twitter that as “MLK was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover, an unsavory character; I was targeted by the equally unsavory B. Hussein Obama.”

D’Souza did not wind up writing a letter from a Birmingham jail. But his tweet does illustrate two wildly disparate conservative approaches to King. Many claim the slain civil rights leader for a variety of conservative causes. A smaller group is decidedly anti-King, basically taking J. Edgar Hoover’s side of the argument.

Just as liberals like to contrast the reasonable conservatives of yesteryear to the irresponsible maniacs they say dominate the GOP now (as if they liked Bill Buckley in his prime better than Ted Cruz), conservatives like to distinguish King from the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of today.

King was fighting against real injustices rather than shaking down companies by threatening to call them racist. But that doesn’t mean, as some conservatives write each year on Martin Luther King Day, that King was basically a conservative. It’s even frequently asserted that King was a Republican.

In 2012, an African-American congressional candidate put up a billboard saying that King was a Republican and so was she.

King’s father was once a registered Republican, but there is no evidence the civil rights leader was. King appealed to some biblical and natural law principles a conservative could supportBut he also favored social programs that went far beyond the Great Society like a guaranteed minimum family income and affirmative action — and he wasn’t much of a Cold Warrior.

King said he saw “dangerous signs of Hitlerism” in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and was similarly critical of Ronald Reagan as the Hollywood actor first entered politics.

It’s impossible to know what his politics would have been if he had lived. But if they stayed the same as most of his closest advisers, he would have agreed with Barack Obama more often than Ben Carson. It’s not inconceivable he would have been to the president’s left.

So does that mean that the anti-King right is correct? Every historical figure should be studied as the flawed human being they really were rather than the sanitized morality play character seen in popular culture. But King is remembered for his fight against Jim Crow, not his views on marginal tax rates or the Cuban trade embargo. Conservatives who focus exclusively on things like plagiarism in his dissertation are missing the point in the same way as liberals who think the only thing that matters about the Founding Fathers is that some of them owned slaves.

It seems to me that Reagan — who often disagreed with King in the 1960s but signed into law his national holiday in 1983 — got it right: “Though Dr. King and I may not have exactly had identical political philosophies, we did share a deep belief in freedom and justice under God.”

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.