This article was expanded from an item in the Current Affairs Biweekly News Briefing. Subscribe today!
Last Monday was Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, a day on which we pay tribute to one of America’s most transformative leaders. As Lily Sánchez wrote in a recent Current Affairs article on the history of King’s holiday, the slain civil rights leader’s vision contained a far more encompassing critique of U.S. society than is typically recognized. In addition to his crusades for social equality, voting rights, and the end to segregation, King had a radical analysis of society that “connected poverty, inequality, and materialism at home to militarism and injustice abroad, and he kept the focus on the poor and marginalized—both at home and abroad.” Since his assassination in 1968, King has been morphed into a sort of apolitical totem, which people of all political persuasions attempt to claim as a fellow traveler.
Every year, you see tributes to King from right-wing politicians, including some who claim that if he were alive today, he’d be a Republican. Many conservative opinion-mongers, including Bill O’Reilly, Ben Carson, and Dinesh D’Souza, and institutions like PragerU and the Heritage Foundation, have attempted to posthumously twist the words of King to suggest that he would be on their side if he were alive today. For instance, O’Reilly argued that King, an advocate of nonviolent protest, would oppose the Black Lives Matter movement. Given King’s many statements about police brutality throughout his life, that seems unlikely. King did indeed oppose violent protest, but also acknowledged that the urge to riot came from a place of desperation: following the 1965 Watts Riot he said, “The economic deprivation, racial isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes…are the ready seeds which gave birth to tragic expressions of violence.” And while we can’t know for sure what movements King would support today, he did speak frequently against police racism, saying in his “I Have a Dream” Speech that Black people could “never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Conservatives frequently single out one line from the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, about judging people “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” to suggest that King would oppose affirmative action. This past MLK Day, Vivek Ramaswamy suggested that King would support banning critical race theory and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, while Ron DeSantis invoked King in defense of his bans on “woke” books. Last year, Brigitte Gabriel—the leader of an anti-Muslim organization called Act for America—tweeted out this laughable AI-generated image of Trump and King embracing one another to celebrate the Supreme Court’s overturning of affirmative action:
In reality, King was a proponent of affirmative action, writing in 1965 that “a society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”
The real King was someone who, if he were around today, most conservatives would probably call a woke, communist race hustler. Contrary to the often simplistic view we tend to receive of him, his political agenda went far beyond merely achieving legal equality for African Americans that would allow them to compete on a level playing field within a meritocratic system. He recognized that our society was arranged in a way that disadvantaged the many for the benefit of the few, and that America’s racial hierarchy was intimately connected to its class hierarchy. King had political beliefs that he wanted to see manifested not just through racial reconciliation but concrete policy changes that would restructure a profoundly unequal nation. As King pointed out, it wasn’t enough to desegregate lunch counters when so many Black people lacked the money to buy anything there.
King described his economic agenda as “democratic socialism” and called for a “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” In a letter to his wife Corretta in 1952, he described himself as “much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” At many points he argued that true equality could only be achieved, not just through legal rights, but through an equal distribution of resources: “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,” he said in a speech before the Negro American Labor Council in 1961. He abhorred American militarism and spent the last few years of his life speaking against the war in Vietnam. In a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam,” he referred to the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and lamented that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Amid the civil rights struggles, King spent many years of his life campaigning alongside labor unions and connected the struggle of African Americans to the struggle of all working people for better living conditions. In a speech before the AFL-CIO in 1965, he said, “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and above all new wage levels that meant not mere survival, but a tolerable life.” And while conservatives often call President Johnson’s War on Poverty an overreaching socialist boondoggle, King criticized it for not going far enough. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, which laid out the goals of his “Poor People’s Campaign,” King argued that all Americans should be guaranteed an income “pegged to the median of society.” In The Nation, Mark Engler describes other proposals laid out by King:
The same month, he announced to reporters demands for a $30 billion annual investment in antipoverty measures, a government commitment to full employment, enactment of a guaranteed income and funding for the construction of 500,000 affordable housing units per year.
Planning a march on Washington in 1967, historian Rick Perlstein cites King saying:
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”
In other words, King was describing a mass mobilization for what conservatives would call a gigantic government “handout.” Somehow, despite all of this evidence, it’s become de rigeur for Republican politicians to issue statements of praise for MLK on his birthday right before going back to gutting the Voting Rights Act, welfare, and all of the other social programs King supported during his life.
This MLK Day, though, some conservatives are finally being a bit more honest about what King actually believed and admitting that they believe his legacy is a bad one. Charlie Kirk, the leader of the conservative youth movements Turning Point USA and Students For Trump, announced that this year he’d be launching a week-long campaign to discredit King’s legacy. “MLK was awful,” Kirk said in a speech to a group of students. “He’s not a good person. He said one good thing he actually didn’t believe.” In a tweet last Monday, Kirk pledged to dispel the “myths” about MLK, stating that “While he was alive most people disliked him, yet today he is the most honored, worshipped, even deified person of the 20th century. Once you break the mythical sainthood of someone like MLK, black voters will realize it’s being used against them to suppress the individual, and even more will realize they are on our side.” He was joined by a chorus of other prominent conservatives, including Daily Wire commentator Matt Walsh, who said “We have to talk about the fact that MLK was a communist.” Human Events editor Jack Posobiec meanwhile derided King as a “god of the Left” adding that “the real legacy of the 1960’s” was “enshrin[ing] racial discrimination and race consciousness into the federal bureaucracy.” One of the most popular right-wing accounts on Twitter, EndWokeness—which has more than 2 million followers—cited King’s quote on wealth redistribution above and stated that “Contrary to popular belief, MLK Jr. did not support a color-blind meritocracy. He was actually a racial-Marxist.”
This is actually quite a bit more honest than the impulse of older conservatives to treat King as one of their own. These modern-day conservatives acknowledge that King had left-wing politics;1 they’re just incorrect about whether that was a good thing. Kirk is also correct that most of the country did revile King in his time. In fact, self-described conservatives hated him the most (further evidence that he was not one of them), and liberals “detested” him, particularly in the last year of his life. Of course, one can be a hated figure for all sorts of reasons. But where Kirk takes the dislike of King as evidence that King was a dangerous fringe figure and that we should return to viewing him as such, what it should demonstrate is that ideas that may seem radical in their time often come to be viewed as commonsensical in the future. Today, nearly everyone has a positive view of King, and most people agree with the parts of his legacy that are well-remembered: equal civil rights and voting rights. Since King was so ahead of his time on those issues, perhaps we should think twice before dismissing other aspects of his vision—like a more equal wealth distribution—as pie-in-the-sky.
As a matter of historical discussion, it’s good to see this myth of MLK as a conservative beginning to die off, because it is false. But we should worry about what it says about the trajectory of the modern conservative movement. Kirk and his fellow travelers are not just trying to alter the record on King—they have begun to make the case to roll back his legacy. As William Turton writes in Wired:
For Kirk, the shift on King wasn’t an offhand remark, but a glimpse into his broader strategy to discredit the civil rights leader and the landmark legislation most associated with King: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I have a very, very radical view on this, but I can defend it, and I’ve thought about it,” Kirk said at America Fest. “We made a huge mistake when we passed the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.”…Kirk argues that the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, ushered in a “permanent DEI-type bureaucracy,” referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Last year, in my very first article in Current Affairs, I chronicled the rise in conservative sentiments in favor of disenfranchising large sections of the population. Those have only grown in the last year. This seems to be dovetailing with a multi-pronged assault on King’s entire legacy. And while it’s good that King may finally be widely acknowledged for his radicalism, the fact that conservatives are starting to rail against him should make us worry about what they may be willing to do at the legislative level to roll back his legacy even more than they already have.
While it’s less historically accurate, the older right’s attempt to claim MLK’s legacy as their own certainly seems like the smarter political approach. King is, essentially, a modern American saint to most people in the country, and rightly so: according to one Pew poll from 2011, 94 percent of Americans said they have a positive view of King—including 100 percent of Black respondents. Kirk’s attempts to demonize him strike me as the latest bit of evidence that the American right, particularly its more ideologically puritanical youth strain, is totally out to lunch and still believes the fiction that it can get a popular mandate to wind American culture back to the 1950s. The last presidential election showed that the Republican Party is actually somewhat capable of making inroads with Black voters. How on Earth is it wise for Republican leaders to suddenly shift to bashing the most celebrated Black leader in American history?
As worrying as this campaign to demonize King and the civil rights movement is, there is also something somewhat heartening about such a staggering display of political incompetence from the right. The conservative tastemakers pushing this MLK re-education campaign are largely the same culture warriors who botched the 2022 midterms by obsessing over scare stories of trans children and litter-boxes in classrooms, and who have insisted over and over that the Supreme Court’s overturn of abortion rights would not be a political liability. There’s not much in politics to feel comforted by these days, but we can at least take heart knowing that the people in charge of Republican Party messaging are true-believing maniacs who are incapable of appealing to anyone who doesn’t get all their news from The Daily Wire. Though whatever comfort we may find in our terminally off-putting opponents will cease to be comforting real quick if they do manage to take power.