Where Was the ‘Values’ Crowd When Dr. King Needed Them?

Is there anything left to say about Martin Luther King Jr.? Well, for one, I don’t think we–many of us, anyway–are grateful enough for him. Sure, his birthday is a national holiday now, but how many take it as more than just another day off? The more I study history, the more I’ve come to realize just how lucky as a nation we were to have him, even as briefly as we did, and how rare it is in history that someone as redemptive as Dr. King comes forward to rescue a nation from itself. In most cases, it doesn’t happen at all.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to say this, to write about Martin Luther King Jr. for some time now. Faithful readers may recall how I shoehorned a reference to Dr. King into a recent column about John Walker Lindh. I’d been recalling the way, years ago in the mid-80′s, I’d been badgering my old mentor Dan Wolf (when he was an Ed Koch adviser) about the Mayor’s refusal to give city employees Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday off (this was before it became a national holiday). A terrible symbolic error, I thought. (In fairness, I should add that Ed Koch was one of those honorable New Yorkers who risked going down to Mississippi to support the Freedom Riders.)

It was the tip of the iceberg of a feeling about Dr. King I’d had ever since I was a kid. My parents wouldn’t let me go to the March on Washington to hear him speak, so I listened instead on the radio–and had some dim intimation of how grateful we should be for having had M.L.K. among us. That we might just as easily not have been blessed with as loving and inspirational a leader, healer and prophet. And that, as bad as race relations may seem at times in America now, things might have been immeasurably worse. In fact, we can see just how much worse in the years after King’s assassination.

But a couple of things have held me back from writing a King column. First of all, there’s the drawback to praising virtue: the imputation that you are somehow seeking to seem virtuous for doing it, and I make no claims to being a particularly virtuous person. But as an observant outsider to virtue, I do know it when I see it in others.

And second, it’s more difficult (for me, anyway) to write about things one admires earnestly than about things one can scoff at ironically. Fortunately, though, I think I’ve found a way to do both, at least in this column. Praising Dr. King will allow me to question the claims to virtue or at least consistency–to being always on the side of morality and human rights–by some conservative figures. In fact, just about all the ones who preen about morality and human rights now, but were shamefully silent–or, worse, scornfully critical–of Martin Luther King at the time when he most needed support: when he was bringing America’s most shameful human-rights issue to the fore.

I will totally concede that liberals (or at least many leftists of the Marxist persuasion) have this problem when it comes to their silence about Marxist police states during the Cold War. I recall some lefty prof preening in moral indignation not long ago in the pages of The Nation about the Cold War surveillance of some writers by the F.B.I. Yes, it was bad, but his knee-jerk sneers at “Cold War” this and “Cold War” that as somehow an exclusively American shame were so dishonest–conveniently ignoring the fact that the Cold War was waged against a regime that didn’t just keep files on dissident writers, but murdered them and locked up poets in death camps. It didn’t just subject dissidents to surveillance, but put millions of them to death. Where was the indignation about those writers and dissenters?

Even now, some manage to remain in denial about the fact that mass murder committed in the name of Marxism might perhaps call into question their faith in the cult of Marxist “science.” When will they find the courage to admit that some of the things they believed at age 22 have been proven wrong by history? No, it’s so much easier to sneer at “the Cold War” as some American delusion. Really brave.

Still, one wants to ask those conservatives who are forever investigating the Cold War pronouncements of every left-wing “fellow traveler” just why they were silent during the great moral struggle on the home front: the civil-rights movement of the 50′s and 60′s. It’s not true of all conservatives; I recall reading in one of Ben Stein’s journals that he traveled with tapes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches to inspire himself. And Andrew Sullivan quoted (a bit tendentiously) from King’s stirring “Why We Can’t Wait” speech on Martin Luther King Day this year in his Web zine. But I wonder how widespread this is among conservatives.

Perhaps it’s time for some responsible conservatives (or some leftists who want payback) to do a detailed investigation of just what the conservative movement was saying about Dr. King and the human-rights issue here in their backyard back in the 60′s: a decade that the “values” crowd loves to dismiss as a time of decadence and degeneracy, but which, in fact–at least when it came to the civil-rights movement–was a time of great honor and moral courage. But not for the mainstream of the conservative movement, where one could find plenty of “fellow travelers” of out-and-right racists such as James Eastland and Strom Thurmond–fellow travelers who failed to speak up against the racist terror that ruled the South. Perhaps some responsible conservatives ought to investigate just what flaw at the heart of moralist conservative philosophy prevented them from seeing the racist violence of the segregated South as a moral issue, a “values” issue. As a question of good and evil.

There were a couple of things that brought all this back to me. First, rereading the first volume of Taylor Branch’s amazing King biography Parting the Waters , which was a kind of life-changing experience for me when it first came out. At a very depressed period of my life, it reminded me of the stirring potential of people to rise above the innate crumminess of human nature and resist evil. Not just King, of course, but all those brave civil-rights activists, black and white.

And then I came upon a provocative essay posted on the Poynter Institute for Journalism Web page as a resource for M.L.K. day, an essay by Peter A. McKay, a writer at The Wall Street Journal who argued that too much attention has been paid to the “I Have a Dream” speech. He recommended instead that media people memorializing Martin Luther King Jr. on his holiday should look at King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963 at the height of one of the ugliest, most brutal and most decisive moments in the civil-rights struggle. It was King as “doer not just dreamer,” Mr. McKay says. It was a smart suggestion, and what struck me on rereading King’s “Letter”–in addition to its erudition and eloquence–was how deeply he’d been affected by the relevance of the Holocaust to the question of civil disobedience in the face of evil. “Everything that was done to the Jews in Germany was done ‘legally,’” King wrote–which calls into question unquestioning obedience to laws that enforce and protect a deeply immoral system.

“Letter from Birmingham Jail” is important in relation to the “faith-based” conservative movement–today’s “values” crowd–because it was addressed to a group of self-proclaimed moralists: to the white ministers in Birmingham (and, alas, a rabbi, too) who publicly called on Dr. King to hold off on his campaign to confront one of the most wretched racist police states in the South–the one run by Birmingham “Commissioner of Public Safety” Bull Connor–so as to avoid “raising tension” in the city.

Don’t disturb the peace, these small-minded, faith-based cowards told Dr. King.

To which he replied, in one passage from the “Letter” (which you can read in full at http://nobelprizes.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html):

” … I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive non-violent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, [we must] create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the magnificent heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

And then there was the serendipitous arrival in the mail of the new paperback edition of Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home , a remarkable, often thrilling account of what its subtitle calls “Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution”–the one that resulted in Dr. King’s arrest and that powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

What reading Carry Me Home did was carry me back to an America–the America as close to us as 1963–that supported what was essentially a brutal and sometimes murderous apartheid regime in the South. I don’t buy the idea that the de facto segregation of the North was as shameful as the de jure segregation in the South. (Blacks in the North could vote without being terrorized, and it made a difference.)

It’s the kind of moral-equivalence argument that white-supremacist theories of the Civil War have long pushed: that Northern “wage slavery” was as bad as Southern whip-and-chain human bondage. Good try.

It was a disgraceful period, the Jim Crow era in the South; it was similar in kind if not in degree to the treatment of the Jews in Germany in the 1930′s, and it had the broad support, alas, of one and a half of America’s two major political parties. The Republicans were eagerly and shamefully seeking ways to exploit racism for their “Southern Strategy.” And the Democratic Party tolerated a racist “solid South” wing that ruled Congress and protected segregation with committee chairmen like Thurmond and Eastland and Howard Smith (the longtime House Rules Committee boss).

And where were the current conservative champions of human rights in China and morality in America back then? Well, those old enough to make a choice to join Dr. King on this most fundamental question of human rights were, with very few exceptions, hiding their faces behind disingenuous “states’ rights” arguments–when they weren’t actively scorning and attacking the civil-rights movement. And where are the conservative human-rights activists of today, who may not have been old enough to be held responsible for their position on Dr. King when he was alive? Making cracks about “affirmative action,” without ever having taken on the racism that gave rise to it. Slandering the 60′s as nothing but Marxists and hippies in a disengenous refusal to see that the defining aspect of the 60′s in American history was the civil-rights movement–because to admit that would force them to face the shameful history of conservative cowardice, hypocrisy and often outright racism in the 60′s.

Am I going too far? Then remind me of the conservatives who did speak out against apartheid in the South. Who were they again? We know the rise of the Bush political dynasty was cemented by Daddy Bush’s disgraceful vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a Texas Congressman–which made him acceptable to the “Southern Strategy” Republicans.

Show me the editorials in the conservative periodicals which said, “We disagree with civil-disobedience tactics, but then, as conservatives who believe in human rights, we have an even greater responsibility to do everything in our power to change ugly racist laws in traditional ways–and to repudiate conservatives who support racism.”

Did I just miss reading them, or were conservatives too busy spreading scurrilous rumors about Dr. King’s sex life to concern themselves with the real moral issue at hand?

Isn’t it about time for those conservatives who failed to recognize what an astonishing, unearned blessing Martin Luther King Jr. was to America–and whose moral neutrality and hostility, at a moment when Dr. King was combating a great evil, was nothing less than shameful–tore examine their own consciences, as well as their movement’s history and its failure of nerve back then? Or perhaps to discover, at long last, that Martin Luther King Jr. should be their hero, too? After all, he led a “faith-based” moral revolution in America, while the preening moralists who preach “faith-based” everything now were silent on the sidelines.

I’ll close with a great line from “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which Dr. King quotes from St. Augustine on the silence of such types:

“Those that sit at rest while others take pains [to resist evil] are tender turtles and buy their quiet with disgrace.”