Despite these efforts, conservatives should not surrender King’s legacy to the left.
Conservatives, of course, have reservations about certain aspects of King’s legacy. For one, he became too close, later in his career, to the welfare state. He was enamored of the theology of the Social Gospel, the movement that undermined much of mainstream Protestantism in the 20th century. Later in life, he was a vocal opponent of American involvement in the Vietnam. And we now know that in his scholarship and personal life King was far from perfect.
Nevertheless, there are three ways in which King’s message is profoundly conservative and relevant.
First, of course, concerns the question of race. King dreamed of a nation for his children where they would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He dreamed of a color-blind society based on the equality of all Americans and their sharing of equal unalienable rights.
The American dream, King said at Lincoln University in 1961, “says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state. To discover where they came from it is necessary to move back behind the dim mist of eternity, for they are God-given.… The American dream reminds us that every man is heir to the legacy of worthiness.”
An agenda that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides, takes us away from King’s vision.
Second, King believed in the critical importance of faith and moral character. He spoke of self-improvement and self-help in both moral and practical terms. He believed in work ethic and thrift and spoke against crime and disorderly conduct. In stark contrast to modern liberalism’s militant secularism, King explicitly ground his efforts in the Christian tradition. King believed that churches and other faith-based associations were necessary for a grassroots revival of American culture.
He also stressed the importance of the family. Indeed, King’s fears about black family breakdown led him to become one of the few civil-rights leaders not to reject Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial 1965 report that warned of rising illegitimacy rates among blacks.
This forgotten aspect of King’s thought is told expertly in an article entitled “Where Dr. King Went Wrong.” Joel Schwartz suggests that King turned to the welfare state when he became disheartened by the emergence of the black underclass.
Third, King firmly embraced the core principles of America’s founding. Unlike so many modern liberals beset with nihilistic multiculturalism, King did not talk about remaking America. His dream was one “deeply rooted in the American dream,” as he said, and one that hearkened back to America’s founding principles
“When these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters,” King wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” “they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s understanding of these things—equality, the importance of faith and morality, and America’s founding principles—has great implications for our politics and policies today. While all Americans recall his ringing words, honest liberals and discerning conservatives ought to remind us of King’s real legacy.