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Was Martin Luther King a Conservative?

Was Martin Luther King, Jr a conservative? The answer, I think, yes and no. As the face of the 1960’s civil rights movement King argued to advance the causes of organized labor and advocated civil disobedience as a means of resisting racial injustice. Those aren’t things we typically associate with conservatives.

On the other hand, King had no interest in the identity politics that make up so much of the racial politics of liberals today. He argued, most powerfully, for people to be judged by “the content of their character,” not the color of their skin. This argument meshes well with the modern conservatives’ emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility.

At CNN.com, John Blake posts some thoughts on the issue:

As the nation celebrates King’s national holiday Monday, a new battle has erupted over his legacy. Some conservatives are saying it’s time for them to reclaim the legacy of King, whose message of self-help, patriotism and a colorblind America, they say, was “fundamentally conservative.”

But those who marched with King and studied his work say that notion is absurd. The political class that once opposed King, they argue, is now trying to distort his message.

King’s most famous words are the crux of the disagreement.

“He was against all policies based on race,” says Peter Schramm, a conservative historian. “The basis of his attack on segregation was ‘judge us by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.’ That’s a profound moral argument.”

I think the answer lies partly in understanding that conservatism itself has changed since the 1960’s. The states-rights conservatism of that day has gone extinct in the mainstream Republican and Democratic parties, insofar as the abolishing of segregation via federal power is now universally celebrated. No major figure in either party today would argue to uphold segregation on the basis of state’s rights.

Yet the left has certainly abandoned King’s vision of a color-blind society, where all would be judged (and indeed all would judge themselves) on the basis of character rather than melanin. And it’s hard to imagine King endorsing the modern left-wing policy of perpetual racial quotas as permanent solution to inequality. And it’s impossible to imagine him doing the kind of blatant race-mongering and profiteering that passes for civil rights leadership among those several men who have sought to fill King’s place as the spiritual and political leader of black America. I don’t need to name names.

I don’t think King would fit perfectly today into either mainstream party when it comes to race issues. The fact is, mainstream liberals have moved away from King’s most enduring principle–that we should assess the individual without regard to skin color. Meanwhile, mainstream conservatives have moved toward him in several important areas–realizing once and for all that states’ rights are secondary to natural rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Was Martin Luther King a conservative?

Maybe that’s the wrong question.

A better one would be this: Are today’s conservatives more like King?

The answer is, yes.

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Image Source: U.S. Library of Congress

Add to the Discussion

  • Justin

    LOL. And, Republicans haven’t been using identity politics since they implemented the Southern Strategy? What was the whole meme about “makers vs. takers”

  • I would propose that he would today be considered more of a Libertarian, rather than what is currently considered to be Republican or Democrat. Then again, many of JFKs policies were more in line with todays Republicans. The parties have changed much in the intervening 5 decades, and not at all for the better.

  • Williard

    that quote is the only one that white people seem to know or quote from MLKJr.

    love him, hate him, but know him. this post is ignorant of his dangerous legacy.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DG_XRVUNplI&sns=fb or http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/01/21-2

    • NormanRockwellAmerican

      Maybe like the blacks whose knowledge of the Founding Fathers is limited solely to the notion that some of them had slaves.

  • pfk1448

    He was a man of his time. The Democratic party of today has little in common with the 1960 version. It was more conservative by today’s definition. Truth be told the Kennedy’s were sweep ed along into the civil rights movement as it emerged. They certainly expressed nothing regarding it during the 1960 election. Up until then the cold war was the center piece of most discourse and the Dems were cold warriors. The Republicans offered little challenge to anything….left over from the New Deal & WW2, thus the illusion of bi-partisanship. Johnson’s expansion of the welfare state and the explosion of countless victim groups had not happened yet. MLK was looking for justice and fairness because it didn’t exist. The welfare state of today was unimaginable.

  • MLK was a strong believer in WORKING, He was a MAN

  • Jessie

    Why MLK is a conservative. Good read for those who might be interested.


  • sry123

    This is patently ridiculous. Are any of today’s conservatives in favor of non-violence? How about a “poor people’s campaign” whose central purpose was to cut military spending and direct it to poor people? King also supported financial compensation for minorities as victims of historical wrongs. Any of these positions would get him branded a traitor by the tea party.

  • About 95% of the people that play the race card CHOOSE to be in same race/color relationships (marriage, shacking, best friend(s)) yet they swear they’re not racist. Go figure!

  • Tina Trent


    There is this thing called the study of history. It will provide answers to you based on something other than pure conjecture and generalization.

    This is supposed to be an education forum, right?