In Campus, a newsletter of the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a letter last spring from a student subscriber questioned comments about Martin Luther King found in the preceding issue’s feature essay, “A Rage for Merit.” This article portrayed King as a passionate critic of affirmative action, and this, according to the student, does not square with the facts: “Today’s civil rights left-wing establishment correctly understands that King was a left-wing redistributionist and no amount of revisionism will convince them that he was really Clarence Thomas’s mentor.” Furthermore, “making Martin Luther King out to be a promoter of a color-blind society is like putting a proverbial pig in a wedding gown—it fools no one and annoys the pig. The right should stop this bad faith exercise and leave such games to the left.”
The “bad faith exercise” already has legions of practitioners identified with the right. For more than a decade the “cult of MLK,” to borrow the phrase of Samuel Francis, has flourished among conservatives and still has not been put on the road to extinction. “Conservative” Republicans Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp were among the fervent sponsors of a King national holiday, and “cultural conservatives,” led by Bill Bennett, Harry Jaffa, and the American Spectator, exalt King as the incarnation of the American “conservative” ideal of equality. In “Giving Shape to Cultural Conservatism,” an essay published in the American Spectator (November 1986), chief educational advisor to the Reagan administration Chester Finn outlined a patriotic calendar built in large part around King and his civil rights revolution. Of the three national holidays intended to promote civic unity, only one focused on a particular historical figure, the birthday of Martin Luther King. That figure, we are informed, instantiated by his life what Finn calls cultural conservatism. King is also imagined to be of such overshadowing merit that no sensible person would dispute his centrality in the American pantheon of heroes.
Such assertions were made by self-described conservatives only three years after King’s birthday was established as a national holiday. As Theodore Pappas and David Garrow remind us from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the honor proposed for King encountered stiff opposition when it came up in Congress. In 1983 a majority of Americans, according to national polls, opposed the King holiday, and the Republican senators and congressmen dwelled on King’s ties to communist advisors and documented sexual escapades. Among those harboring suspicions about King’s character was the President himself. Then President Reagan almost vetoed the holiday, but was persuaded to put aside his expressed reservations, for the sake of racial reconciliation. In all likelihood Reagan still remembered the warnings about King that had once filled the conservative press. Well into the 70’s, William F. Buckley had stressed King’s socialist opinions and communist associations. And that Jewish commentator on Christian theology for National Review, Will Herberg, had inveighed against King as a Marxist radical pretending to be a Christian. From July 14 through September 8, 1964, in his most vitriolic prose, Herberg mocked King’s claim to stand in the Christian tradition of nonviolent resistance to tyranny. Herberg insisted that King equated such Christian resistance with a “religious right to violate law,” indeed any law that displeased him. Moreover, the passive resistance championed by King was aimed at getting others to exercise force. By causing enough disturbance. King hoped to bring into play federal power, which would overthrow the voting and social practices of Southern states.
The brief gathered against King as a social radical manipulated by communist advisors, such as his speechwriter Stanley Levison, was not entirely a product of the right. The New York Times had treated these charges seriously in a feature article of August 28, 1967, and in the essay accompanying its choice of King as Man of the Year for 1963, Time magazine had also touched on King’s troubling associations. More damningly, a young black liberal journalist, Carl Rowan, had published an extended diatribe against King in Reader’s Digest in September 1967, which was widely discussed until King’s assassination in the following year. According to Rowan, King had become an embarrassment to the civil rights cause. He was a figure with an “exaggerated appraisal” of his own abilities who seemed unwilling or unable to free himself from “subversives.” The vehemence of his opposition to the Vietnam War came from his communist advisors, and the result of his increasingly radical speeches was King’s growing isolation from the political base he would need to succeed as a responsible black leader: “King had become persona non grata to Lyndon Johnson and has alienated many of the Negro’s friends and armed his foes.” Rowan’s caustic observations are particularly noteworthy in view of the leftward direction in which he later moved. Needless to say, the very mention of his objections about King’s character and career would today be condemned as vigorously on the right as on the left.
Indeed it might be argued that the respectable American right, consisting of neoconservatives and their dependents, have praised King far more extravagantly than self-avowed liberals. While the liberal left has flitted from one black hero to the next, depending on its changing agenda, conservatives, by contrast, have stuck with King as their preferred icon. They have associated him with the dream of equality evoked by Lincoln, the Old Testament prophetic tradition of witnessing against injustice, and St. Paul’s ideal of a universal spiritual community. In one version of the King legacy offered by Dan Himmelfarb in Commentary (May 1988), the slain civil rights leader is made into the endpoint of the “Western liberal tradition.” The ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and Madison are all seen as flowing into King, while his critics are relegated to the status of standing outside the dominant political tradition of the post-medieval West. For Kemp, Finn, Gingrich, and Jaffa, King embodied the virtues of the original civil rights movement, before it descended into the advocacy of racial quotas. All King supposedly wanted were federally enforced guarantees for a color-blind society. Once that was achieved, it was King’s hope, we would all be judged by “the content of our character” and not by “the color of our skin.” The essential King, for his conservative boosters, can be found in passages from the speech that he gave during the March on Washington in August 1963 and in the apparent references to natural law from his letter written in a Birmingham jail earlier the same year. Allusions to these documents keep coming up among prominent conservative critics of contemporary educational fashion. Thus Dinesh D’Souza, Lynne Cheney, Roger Kimball, and Charles Sykes all cite King as a profound Christian theologian, who would be disappointed by our deviations from his vision of interracial brotherhood. The contemporary left is accused of desecrating his memory by formulating race-conscious policies and by acquiescing in black separatist demands.
The one trouble with this conservative exercise in revisionist history is its glaring counter-factualness. Unlike the descriptions of King found in the work of his left-wing biographer David Garrow, those of the recent conservative movement have no correspondence to reality. They exemplify the use of partial, decontextualized truth to create a desired image; a civil rights martyr who died for neoconservative values. In this fabricated legend King lived and died to justify that part of the civil rights revolution that today’s official right endorses, as opposed to that part it does not. The moderate legacy which some are intent on preserving consists of federal control of the franchise, demonization of the white South and its history, and social engineering undertaken for the sake of a color-blind society. What King, from this perspective, must not be allowed to stand for are those positions that the civil rights movement supposedly came to embrace afterward, that is, black separatism and racially based quotas. These are seen to be extraneous to the original struggle for black equality, as reflected in a morally immaculate leader. It was this idealized King who saw his work culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both were allegedly road marks on the way to federally enforced color-blindness.
This received account of contemporary history includes questionable assumptions, and this may explain why conservative power-brokers do not want to delve too deeply into it. Instead they have gotten on with the job of turning King into a cult. While groups and institutions have changed their collective mind about particular historical figures, one must assume that among honest thinkers such a process would take generations. Thus the Catholic Church went from burning Aristotle’s (presumed) works to treating them as a pagan preparation for Christian revelation. But this reconsideration did not occur overnight: it took several centuries, up until the Councils of Trent, before it was done. In the intervening time lively and prolonged debates took place about the texts and thinker in question. Of course modern political movements are not as intellectually scrupulous or as bound by defining worldviews. And so American movement conservatives, like American communists who defended the Nazi-Soviet pact, came to believe or pretended to believe that what until recently they had viewed as demonic was not that at all.
In this fideistic fashion conservatives proceeded to reassess King. During a period of weeks in 1983, all or most movement conservatives clustered around the Beltway had a timely change of heart. They went from raging against King’s radical ideas to celebrating him as the conscience of America. I still recall a syndicated column by Aram Bakshian, a former Nixon speechwriter, from October 1983, which enunciated the new wisdom, Bakshian urged his fellow conservatives to rally to the celebration of King, to testify to their faith “that America is now a better place than it used to be because of him.” This was also about the time that conservatives began to entertain other second thoughts, for example, about flying Confederate flags over Southern statehouses or about having the government decorate a Confederate monument in Washington. The operative term for those having these second thoughts was “staying in the political conversation.” Only those, it might be assumed, who had moved beyond Carl Rowan’s demurs of 1967 could remain or become respectable conservatives.
For the neoconservatives, who by 1983 were coming to control American conservatism financially and programmatically, this new party line was second nature. Having brought with them what James Burnham called a “leftist gestalt” into the movement they occupied, they went on speaking as they had done before. As leftists they had admired King and the civil rights legislation of the mid-60’s. They continued to applaud both after they had taken over the right, a process which was completed by the early 80’s. More importantly, the neoconservatives got others who had thought differently about King to join their chorus of praise. Thus the figure whom today’s conservative magazines extol as “Mr. Cultural Conservatism,” William Bennett, is a Great Society Democrat, albeit one who has joined the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, Bennett commends to his followers the conservatism” of Martin Luther King.
But there is a hitch in playing too boldly with the facts: someone may notice even if forbidden to do so. Historical records arc there which can be set against politically motivated misrepresentations of what people said and did. And there are those ornery enough to dredge up the past precisely to embarrass those who abuse the truth. None of which is to say that earnest scholars cannot differ in their readings of events and personalities. In The True and Only Heaven, for example, Christopher Lasch distinguishes between the early and late Martin Luther King, the first being a traditional pastor ministering to his flock in the face of racial indignity and the second being a radical who tried to get the modern state to revolutionize society. Though these personae surely overlapped, Lasch’s portrait of King shows there was change taking place in his subject. And Lasch never recoils from biographical truths that American conservatives studiously avoid mentioning, that King made hateful statements about whites and truckled to black advocates of violence. It is also hard to ignore other traits in King that any honest reckoning must take into account: his plagiarism, lechery, and political grandstanding will not disappear from the historical record, however frantically liberal journalists talk about Southern racism and however desperately conservative publicists quote from King’s borrowed rhetoric. His views on preferential treatment for blacks were the same as those of later civil rights leaders. In a Playboy interview of 1965 (reprinted in the anthology Testament of Hope), and in his booklet Where Do We Go from Here?, King demands reparations from whites and job quotas for blacks. King insisted on more exacting compensation for his race than even that which Bill Clinton’s Justice Department is now demanding. In a town, he explains, where blacks are 30 percent of the total population, every business and educational institution should have to recruit blacks in the same proportion.
Such opinions should not shock a careful student of recent American history, and it was therefore inevitable that someone should notice the lack of congruity between conservative hagiography and what King actually said. But the falsifications about King tell far more about their perpetrators than about the one they are intended to grace. The American conservative movement is not simply fibbing about a personality whose ascendancy it saw as inevitable in 1983. This excuse, one I have heard repeatedly from political observers, ignores the sad truth that American conservatism has become tainted by lies. Its adherents have fallen victim to what Cicero called malum turpe, a tcndenc) to falsify which infects the practitioner. Today’s conservatives rush to reconstruct their history in order not to make others feel uncomfortable.
Typical here is a tendency prevalent among older conservatives to obscure or hide their past observations which might be termed racist. A case in point is a recent syndicated column by William Rusher in the Washington Times (May 25, 1996), about the “present state of affairs” with regard to preferential treatment for minorities. This arose, or so we are told, from “years of deliberate misinterpretations of the language of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964,” the only purpose for which was “to bar discrimination against black Americans.” But this was not the way National Review, which Rusher published in the 1960’s, interpreted the Civil Rights Act. In successive editorials, and most trenchantly on December I, 1964, National Review, and presumably its publisher, warned against the indeterminate powers given to federal bureaucrats under the recent civil rights legislation.
All of these warnings were justified. And in 1964 it was not only conservative intellectuals but political celebrities, including Barry Goldwater, George Bush, and Ronald Reagan, who raised the same arguments against a looming legislative disaster. That Southern warhorse Senator Richard Russell was right when he observed that Title Seven of the proposed act would lead to the government’s imposition of quotas. This indeed happened even before Lyndon Johnson left the presidency, and the practice was continued and expanded under his Republican successor. Unlike Hubert Humphrey, who offered to eat his hat if the 1964 legislation resulted in quotas, conservatives knew this would happen. They perceived not only the problematic phraseology in the Civil Rights Act, but even more significantly the dynamics of the civil rights movement and of the modern administrative state. In the 1960’s, even garden-variety conservatives had some sense of history and were principled enough to stand athwart what they saw as an institutionalized revolution.
What we find today is a state of denial among those conservatives who can recall a different past, about their own moral and intellectual accomplishments. Those postwar conservatives in our midst struggle to give the impression that they started out as being more in today’s mainstream than was the case. Such people have not come to terms with their own past, even though their former critical stance now seems, in historical retrospect, more defensible than ever before. Nor do they make the necessary distinction between saying “I told you so” and pretending they never uttered a politically unfashionable warning that turned out to be true. This may be analogous to the rejection of another difference by contemporary conservatives, the one between recognizing Martin Luther King’s indisputable courage and ascribing to him qualities and views that were not his. The inability or unwillingness to make such distinctions is symptomatic of Cicero’s malum turpe. The self-contaminating avoidance of truth begins with deliberate falsification and ends with the liar’s inability to recall whatever knowledge of a subject he once had. Such an illness is clearly ravaging the American right.