Was MLK politically liberal, conservative or moderate?   Leave a comment

How should we classify the political ideology of Martin Luther King, Jr.? King’s ideology, with respect to race relations, can be described as radical idealism. Given how much they have changed through the years, the terms liberal, conservative, and moderate are so loaded and so unclear that they can be tricky to apply, but King’s popular reputation as liberal is mostly accurate. King can be called “liberal” in a couple of senses: in the modern sense he was a proponent of radical egalitarian change, federal government intervention, global equality, human “brotherhood,” and income redistribution; he was liberal in the classical sense as a proponent of the Enlightenment, and for a certain free-thinking with regard to Church hierarchies. King can be called a “conservative” in that he was extremely religious, and supported many of his arguments with Christian theology, which modern Americans often view as a conservative trait. King’s ethics prohibited the violent disruption of the status quo, which could be called conservative, or, perhaps more aptly these days, moderate. Suffice to say, this is a man so singular in the force of his moral vision and courage that he transcends most labels. He is a national hero and inspiration, or should be, for people of all political stripes.

The following are notes on three works by King in A Testament of Hope (Harper One, 1990), with the question of an ideological or political label in mind:

From the I Have a Dream speech:

Despite being oft-characterized by black radicals as a message that is somehow soft, this speech includes threatening language aimed at the complacent North as well as the South: “A Negro in Mississippi cannot vote, and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No we are not satisfied…” (218-219) King’s language was prophetic regarding the race riots that would sweep the nation: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights…those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content, will have a rude awakening if this country returns to business as usual.” (218) King did use the speech to espouse integration and brotherhood, but did it in the context of a demand for radical change, one that was appreciative of the fervor of black nationalism: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people…“(218)

It is startling to think that this speech, which created such a powerful feeling of optimism, was followed a month later by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the month after that by JFK’s assassination. What a hectic, tragic time it must have been to live through. Malcolm X’s statement that the “chickens came home to roost” on that day in November seems, in retrospect, apt. Those “chickens” still rule the roost.

From the Promised Land speech:

King had a powerful spirituality, but his admonition against an afterlife-focused religion verged on materialism, and he called the talk of “long white robes over yonder” (the common concept of heaven) symbolism, anathema to the views of any fundamentalist or Biblical literalist. (282)

The masses of people are rising up.“(279) By listing as examples of uprisings South Africa, Kenya, NYC, and Memphis, Tennessee, King placed the struggle of US blacks on an international, revolutionary, anti-colonialist continuum, while his comparison of their position to the slaves in Egypt under Pharaoh sounds like that of a “fellow traveler”; “slaves get together… Now let us maintain unity.” (280-281) King’s assessment of the potential power that lay dormant in the black G.D.P. sounds almost like black nationalism, but in the moving final paragraphs of this speech, in which he accurately prophesized his death at the hands of “sick white brothers,” is remarkable in that he is unwilling to give up the rhetoric of human brotherhood, even while speaking of his most vicious enemies. (283, 286)

From Letter from the Birmingham Jail:

King makes a plea for more interracial cooperation here, and lauds those whites who have already committed to the cause as “too small in quantity, but…big in quality.” (298) But he also embraces the title of extremist; the letter’s closing remark, especially when read in context, is a rousing call for radical change, and King writes that if he displays “…patience with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.” (302) King’s call to direct action is, in itself, radical. His critique of laws as just and unjust  as the basis for breaking the latter is a fairly liberal (in the broad sense) legal doctrine, that draws on a conservative (in the broad sense) view of ethics, one which is not relativistic or post-modern, but is grounded firmly in Western, Judeo-Christian, and classical thought. (293-295) The statement that “law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice” is a rebuke to the conservative ideal of order for its own sake. (295)

King’s vision of a transformed humanity, with regard to race relations and everything else, is difficult to classify, but as we use the terms today he falls most comfortably within the liberal tradition.

Updated 3/3/12

Posted May 1, 2011 by emmonsok in Uncategorized

A Testament of Hope Items 31-35   Leave a comment

31. Civil Right No. 1: The Right to Vote  (A Testament of Hope, page 182)  An op-ed piece by MLK published in the Sunday, March 14, 1965, New York Times.

I chose to discuss this one because, though the main topic of the essay is voting rights in the South, a week after “Bloody Sunday,” King also addresses the topic of Sweet Land of Liberty (Sugrue): the bitter inequality that blacks faced in the North. King states in this essay that the South had “a stable pattern of community life that at least promised survival and a minimum of emotional security. This is more than is promised by the slums of New York, Chicago and other cities, which are already teeming with bitterness and constantly kept at boiling point by the misery of rats, filth, unemployment and de facto segregation.” (pg. 182) The Voting Rights Bill was on the table (According to the text, LBJ would give a TV address on the issue the following day), and King addressed the issue of the inordinate power that conservative, segregationist southern Senators had, in the direction of legislation:  “Bills providing for the welfare of our nation, from Medicare to education, must run the gauntlet of southern power before they are enacted- and many never are.”

There was great upheaval in Selma, Alabama, surrounding the issue of voting rights, and the demographics of the participants showed that the civil rights movement was growing rapidly.  According to King, in Birmingham (1963) the participants were “students and unemployed adults,” while, two years later in Selma, 40-50% of the total black population was mobilized in the fight to gain voting rights. King skewered the hypocrisy of the whites in Selma, quoting a misspelling (“vocher” for voucher) on the “literacy test” from the Selma registrar’s office.

The document is a strange thing to meditate upon. History will view these years as the peak of the American empire, and Americans’ average standard of living was perhaps the best of any population anywhere, ever. And yet, at recently as this, and as brightly as our star was shining, there was a large minority population denied the most basic democratic right:the right to vote.

All of the readings I had to do were interesting, and I was probably not the only one who found the experience of reading King’s statements, and their message of urgent and activist humanism and non-violence,  collected together to be a powerful experience.

Policemen preparing to defend “states’ rights” in Selma, on March 7 1965, “Bloody Sunday.”

Posted April 30, 2011 by emmonsok in Uncategorized

Extra, extra   Leave a comment

I’m not claiming this one (I can’t even read it ’cause I’ve used up all my free articles for the month), but this article in the New York Times today looks like a good one for our class, if somebody still needs a link.

“Accusations that a Connecticut woman used a false address to enroll her son in school have stirred arguments about differences in schools from one town to another.”

Looks like a sad story…

Posted April 28, 2011 by emmonsok in Uncategorized

Sad Irony   Leave a comment

Below is a link to a story that could be from many cities across America; this one happened in Bakersfield, CA a couple of weeks ago. The story is on the website of a local TV news station.

“A 22-year-old man is in critical but stable condition after he was shot Monday night in east Bakersfield. Bryant Reagor was reportedly arguing with another man on the 600 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard when the man shot him in the torso.”

I used to live on MLK Blvd. (and Beacon) in Seattle and, for Seattle, it was a pretty tough corner. You could hit the dealers with a slingshot from my back porch, and big police busts were an everyday thing. In how many cities is “Martin Luther King Blvd”-named for a man of equality, integrity, and peace- a street associated with poverty, crime, and violence?

Posted April 27, 2011 by emmonsok in Uncategorized

Race Riots   Leave a comment


The article above, from the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, announces the upcoming commencement of the 1970 class at a Georgia college. The original ceremony was cancelled after race riots broke out in response to the killing of a black teenager in an Augusta jail. Georgia governor Lester Maddox sent in the National Guard, and the students did not join the riots. They apparently got the message from Kent State that protest would be remedied with bullets. Below is a link to a Randy Newman song that references Lester Maddox, and that has a very abrasive, humorous, and complex message about racial politics that is along the lines of Sugrue’s argument in Sweet Land of Liberty: That the North is also culpable in the oppression of blacks.


Posted April 27, 2011 by emmonsok in Uncategorized

When everybody wins, everybody wins   4 comments

Racism, as Thomas Sugrue presents it, is not merely an irrational dislike of people who are “other.” It must be tied to and stem from the unconscious desire to maintain economic and political inequality.

Racism is a psychological construction used to justify inequality. White people are racist to the extent they have to be in order to avoid the cognitive dissonance that would accompany an honest accounting of the relative situation of black people. Sugrue, on page 509 of his book Sweet Land of Liberty (Random House, 2008), writes that “whites–whatever they personally thought of blacks–returned to their white neighborhoods, continued to send their children to segregated schools, and fought to maintain control over taxation, education, and land use in ways that were far more damaging to the cause of racial equality than any negative feelings they might harbor…” (509)

Sugrue shows that civil rights have been gained by the exercise of political force, and rarely by an elimination of “racist” attitudes that led to a voluntary leveling of the playing field. It seems to be human nature to hold on to any advantage. The problem is the inherent lack of force available to communities that are in the minority demographically and monetarily. That is why, I think, Sugrue shows such an affinity for the perspective of the relatively unknown civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph. To wed economic issues with racial issues seems to be the only realistic way forward for the civil rights movement. Sugrue disparages the idea of abandoning programs like affirmative action as a shift “rightward,” but in a nation where income inequality is at record levels and continues to grow the pragmatic decision to seek fairness for all, irrespective of color, would give black activists common cause with much of America.

As Sugrue points out, the push for “diversity” rather than equality has resulted in a token integration within the (ever-shrinking) American middle class. The push must be for equality, and it is going to be an ugly fight.

The story told in Sweet Land of Liberty is sad, indeed. I have included some pretty saxophone music with my post, if anyone is in the mood for spiritual consolation.

Updated 3/4/12

Posted April 15, 2011 by emmonsok in Uncategorized

Democracy Now!   2 comments

Still writing on Sugrue, check back later… but I wanted to make an announcement:

Democracy Now! (the radio program hosted by Amy Goodman) features Thomas Frank and Grace Lee Boggs (see Sugrue’s Index) on today’s show. Boggs is inspirational.


Posted April 14, 2011 by emmonsok in Uncategorized