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Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 1999/26 Teves, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Martin Luther King:
The radical as conservative?

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) HISTORY IS UP TO ITS OLD TRICKS AGAIN. The dangerous radical of one generation is becoming the conservative icon of another. The idea of freedom asserted in one era is disdained in another. The people grow confused and want to turn back, for the wilderness appears impenetrable, freedom a fraud and the fleshpots of Egypt alluring. The prophet is no longer what he once seemed.

And so Martin Luther King Jr. emerges as an American conservative, the definition of which is someone dedicated to preserving the gains of a liberal revolution of another age. Booker T. Washington underwent the same transformation in history.

After all, what could have been more conservative or more American than Martin Luther King's now-classic speech before the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963? It sounded conservative even then to those with ears to hear and minds to comprehend, for it was rooted in traditional values.

To see and hear Martin Luther King on the old television tapes describing his American dream is to realize how easily his ideas could have come from a conservative tract, if only conservative tracts were better written:

"I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.''

Is any passage more frequently cited against the quota system called Affirmative Action that has replaced the dream of equality? Is any passage so clear a call for what is most missing in American politics today -- character?

So does the revolutionary of one age become the conservative of another. Call it progress.

Nothing was clearer about Dr. King's dream than the transformation of political struggle into morality tale. Which explains his effectiveness. He appealed to a common moral ground. He understood that victory consists not in vanquishing the enemy, but winning him over -- making a friend of an enemy.

Martin Luther King understood that he had an ally in the heart of his adversary, and he would never stop appealing to it. He would not adopt the ways of the oppressor in order to win a hollow victory; he knew that means can corrupt ends. As he told his followers in front of the Lincoln Memorial on that day he made historic:

"In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. ... I am not unmindful that some of you have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.''

To hear his voice again, and to try to compare Dr. King's words with the already forgotten agitation of the Million Man March, is to understand the difference between ideas that endure and slogans that are uttered in a day and disappear in a day.

Martin Luther King's ideas were rooted -- in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in the Bible and its moral imperatives. He knew the power of the old ideas he was bringing to bear anew. A preacher's child, he had grown up with them.

Martin Luther King was a child of the Bible Belt, and a product of the black church -- surely one of the most revolutionary and conservative institutions in American history, and still one of the most potent and promising even its now weakened state.

No, that Baptist preacher out of the South did not entered this struggle with empty hands; he was the prophet armed with weapons far more powerful than physical ones.

Dr. King was not out just to conserve certain ideas, but to use them, to make them take flight again, to bring them to life. He would use those ideas to shame those who dared call themselves conservatives while denying every uplifting precept of the Bible and Constitution and their own rearing.

If his arguments didn't work on his enemies, Martin Luther King was prepared to love their enmity to death. He understood that he had an ally in the heart, and mind, of his adversaries. And he never stopped appealing to both.

When the dragon's teeth were being sown for what Walker Percy would call "this awfully interesting century,'' a Russian anarchist by the name of Kropotkin was told that American Negroes had a conservative leader -- one Booker T. Washington. "And what,'' Pyotr Alekseyevich asked with a bitter laugh, "do they have to conserve?''

It was a good question, a bitter question with an ironic thrust. But as it turned out, black Americans had quite a bit to conserve. So do we all: the words of the Declaration of Independence, with their universal promise. The rule of law. The Bill of Rights, including the right of peaceable assembly. The chance for an education -- a real education and not the placebo too often sold to the children of the poor and despised, isolated in our slums.

When the revolution that Citizen Kropotkin had welcomed came to his homeland, Russia was cast into the darkest of darknesses. All rights would be lost, and they would not be seen again for most of this dark century. Kropotkin's jeer still echoes with irony, but now it is an unintended irony.

The revolution that Martin Luther King Jr. led could not have succeeded if he had not managed to unite so many Americans -- of every race, religion and political persuasion -- behind his demand for simple justice. His was an appeal not to ideology, but to conscience. He searched for common ground, for a moral basis for political policy, and found it.

"Black and white together,'' the demonstrators used to sing. You don't hear that song any more. Which may explain why the civil rights movement stopped moving. It became infected with the same racial myopia (Black Power!) that it had once fought.

Segism of a different color, an equal but opposite reaction, would make a comeback in American history. A new black intelligentsia would appear that knew not Martin. His would not be the name embroidered on the baseball caps of another generation. The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. would give way to the frustrations of a Malcolm X, or the demagoguery of a Louis Farrakhan.

What happened? Maybe the character of the enemy, or at least its tactics, changed. Martin Luther King Jr. did battle with "a darkness that could be touched,'' to borrow a phrase from the Book of Exodus. The darkness of those years was as undeniable as the Jim Crow laws, the separate water fountains, the back of the bus. ... In those days, the enemy was as loud and snarling as Bull Connor's police dogs, as unmistakable as the violence of the mob, as transparent as Southern governors playing the race card.

Today's darkness evades touch. It goes to and fro in the land, and walks freely up and down in it, recognizing no racial or political boundaries. It ensnarls the courts in endless disputations that defeat good will and destroy learning. It substitutes bureaucratese and educanto for simple justice and individual opportunity. It resegregates by Race and Gender and Ethnicity and Language and Minority and Majority, and generally makes many out of one, reversing that most American of mottos, E Pluribus Unum.

The darkness has learned how to use the law to reconstruct barriers between Americans and re-establish racial and ethnic divisions in law and policy -- in the name of progress and justice.

But the light can be blinked only so long. Americans grow impatient with new rationalizations for old injustices; the new segism is proving as brittle as the old. John Marshal Harlan's old ideal of a color-blind Constitution is being rediscovered by the courts, the politicians, the people.

The, yes, radically conservative ideas of Martin Luther King are being seen as liberating once again. It turns out that all Americans have a lot to conserve, and we may even be starting to realize it. Our own Kropotkins begin to lose favor.

One can tell a lot about an age by the heroes it chooses. While the Malcolms and Farrakhans come and go in favor, Martin Luther King Jr. remains. And his continuing presence in the American pantheon affords hope.


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