Martin Luther King's Conservative Legacy

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Martin Luther King's Conservative Legacy

January 12, 2006 7 min read
Carolyn Garris
Research Associate

It is time for conservatives to lay claim to the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was no stalwart Conservative, yet his core beliefs, such as the power and necessity of faith-based association and self-government based on absolute truth and moral law, are profoundly conservative. Modern liberalism rejects these ideas, while conservatives place them at the center of their philosophy. Despite decades of its appropriation by liberals, King's message was fundamentally conservative.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, triggered by Rosa Parks' refusal to abide by local segregation laws, sparked King's rise from ministering a small church in Montgomery to national renown. King's primary aim was not to change laws, but to change people, to make neighbors of enemies and a nation out of divided races. King led with love, not racial hatred. From a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, his message inspired the nation. And his message and achievements inspire us today.

Dr. King believed in the principles of the American Founding. He maintained, "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom." Throughout American history, racism has posed a peculiar obstacle to the achievement of that goal. However, Dr. King believed that the Founders had set the nation on the right course. He did not reject the principles of our nation because contradictions existed; instead he hoped that racial groups would put aside their differences and acknowledge the principles that unite all Americans. Today, it is conservatives who seek to unite. In a nation divided by cultural diversity, conservatives defend and celebrate the characteristics that we share as Americans. As America drifts from the ideas and ideals of the Founders, conservatives stand with King as believers that the principles of the American Founding are as relevant today as in 1776.

Dr. King believed in a fixed moral law, an anathema to moral relativists espousing subjective values. For King, a just law was "a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God." Dr. King required that his followers lead moral lives, and he emphasized the importance of faith in the face of adversity. Modern liberalism has rebuffed this teaching, dedicating great effort to silence religion and morality. Again, conservatives are the standard-bearers here.

For Dr. King, individual freedom depended upon civic responsibility. He proclaimed, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Racial judgment is inherently unjust, but judgment based on moral character is essential. King wanted his children to live in a colorblind society but not a value-neutral society that rejects all standards of judgment. Today, this is the Conservative message. Moral character as expressed in our social interactions is at the center of self-government, which in turn is the sustaining force of American democracy. Conservatives know that without a morally-informed sense of social obligation, we would be rudderless.

In today's parlance, Dr. King's movement would be called "faith-based." Unlike the doggedly secular groups that now campaign for government action in the name of "social justice," King's coalition was explicitly religious, rooted in churches and Christian morality. King's ever-growing congregation labored for reform in Montgomery, in Alabama, and then all across the country. The Montgomery Bus Boycott testifies to the strength of churches and local institutions to make a difference. The heart of the conservatism has always been grassroots movement, from the bottom up rather than from the top down, focused on faith-based and community associations. While liberals who claim King's legacy seek to mandate social change from the nation's capital, conservatives seek to empower communities, associations, and congregations to carry out moral ends.

King aimed to unite a divided America behind the goals of the Founders, not to shift fundamentally unjust public policies to favor different groups. Affirmative action stands outside King's legacy because it requires the government to see Americans as members of privileged and disfavored racial groups, not equal individuals. This is also the Conservative view.

It is not a coincidence that conservatives share Dr. King's core principles, as they are the principles of the American Founding and continue to guide us today. Dr. King's dream echoes that of the Founders: "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." King's dream is rooted in the ideas of human equality, individual freedom, and the consent of the governed. These ideas depend on absolute truth and moral law, and they are supported and affirmed by religion and religious association. This dream, Dr. King's Conservative message, is nearly lost amidst the worship of cultural diversity and moral relativism. It is still a dream worth pursuing.

Carolyn Garris is Program Coordinator in the Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

The Words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lives a great street sweeper who did his job well.

"Facing the Challenge of a New Age:" Address at the Institute of Non-violence and Social Change, Montgomery, Alabama, December 1956

He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

Stride Toward Freedom, 1958

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

"I have a Dream," Speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to life our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

"I have a Dream," Speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963

Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.

Strength to Love, 1963

If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live.

Speech in Detroit, Michigan June 23, 1963

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

"Letter from the Birmingham Jail,"April 1963

It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will… time is always ripe to do right.

"Letter from the Birmingham Jail,"April 1963

We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.

"Letter from the Birmingham Jail,"April 1963

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream and the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, and thusly, carrying our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

"Letter from a Birmingham Jail," April 1963

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent.

"I See the Promised Land,"Speech in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968

On the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us -- if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Signing the Bill Making the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a National Holiday, November 2, 1983

(In reference to King's quote, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character")

If King's Statement is true, it doesn't matter who says it. If it is true, it is true. Indeed, everyone should say it. Every one of all races should say it.

Bill Bennett, "The Conservative Virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King," November 5, 1993

Dr. King believed that everybody was capable of enjoying God's redemptive powers. He did not attack his enemies. Like Abraham Lincoln, he believed that the best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.

Robert Woodson, "The Conservative Virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King," November 5, 1993

There is still a need for us to hear the words of Martin Luther King, to make sure the hope of America extends its reach into every neighborhood across this land. So it's fitting we're here in a church that has got ministries aimed at healing those who hurt, and fighting addiction and promoting love and families. It is fitting we meet here in a church because in this society, we must understand government can help, government can write checks-but it cannot put hope in people's hearts or a sense of purpose in people's lives.

George W. Bush, Address at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Landover, Maryland January 20, 2003


Carolyn Garris

Research Associate