How Conservatives Pretend That Martin Luther King Was One of Them

Remember Martin Luther King, Jr., the oppressed Southern black man, the freedom fighter, the peacenik, who called for radical progressive civil rights and economic justice legislation, and who was smeared as a Communist? Today, pundits would like to remind you that he was, of course, a "conservative."

When MLK was alive, his main point of contact with self-proclaimed "conservatives" tended to be at the end of their billy clubs. But now that decades have passed and the righteousness of King's cause has become conventional wisdom and it is embarrassing to be seen as having opposed it in any way, the conservative movement has decided, hey, that guy was one of us.

There are a few ways to approach the task of making a radical progressive like MLK appear, in retrospect, to have been a conservative. You can, for example, simply pick and choose which of his positions are "relevant." From National Review:

On anniversaries like this one, left-wingers sometimes lament that King is not remembered in full. They say that he was hostile to capitalism and to the Vietnam War. It is a historically accurate point, and it is a historically irrelevant point. King is a national hero because of the American ideals he championed and brought much closer to realization. It is the march of those ideals that we commemorate this week.

Or, you can explain that King's call for rote colorblindness was "deeply patriotic," whereas his calls for economic justice were not. From Jonah Goldberg:

Today, conservatives, who were too often on the wrong side of civil rights in 1963, are champions of race neutrality, while King's self-appointed heirs are more inclined to champion the ideas that never spoke to the hearts of all Americans.

Or, you can use the fact that King won the legal battle against segregation as a segue into a Booker T. Washington-esque call for black people to turn their attention away from what is being done to them, and focus exclusively on self-improvement. From John McWhorter in the Wall Street Journal today:

[Being "underdogs with a bone to pick"] is not where the March on Washington was pointing us. There is work left, but we are free at last. No, we aren't living in a "post-racial" America, but that fantasy will never be realized. What we black Americans are free to do, in a permanently imperfect world, is shape our own destiny together.

In 2013, how white people feel about us has nothing to do with that task. Only by facing that reality will we truly honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

It all adds up to a simple formula: concede wholehearted support for the points that have already been won, while dismissing (as irrelevant, or unpatriotic, or immoral) the points that are still active political issues with which conservatives disagree. Bask in the halo of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most popular ideas while ignoring the fact that they were but a part of a whole— a whole that included a vision of a racially, legally, politically, and economically just society that is still, today, the un-achieved goal of progressives, as bitterly opposed by conservatives as it was when King was calling for it 50 years ago.

[Photo: AP]