Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2004 / 27 Teves 5764

Paul Greenberg

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The radical as conservative | History is up to its old tricks again. The dangerous radical of one generation becomes the conservative icon of another.

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.

Even when Dr. King was leading the civil rights movement, what appeal could have been more conservative or more American than his now classic speech before the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963? Listen:

"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? Is any passage so clear a call for the missing ingredient in so much of American politics today - character?

Even then Martin Luther King's words sounded conservative to those with ears to hear and minds to comprehend, for his message was rooted in traditional values.

To see Martin Luther King on the old, black-and-white 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.

Talk about pushing moral values. 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 ground.

Martin Luther King wasn't just addressing a nation, he was uniting it in the process of chastising it. Which is what a prophet does.

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. His was an appeal not to ideology but to conscience.

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

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A new black intelligentsia soon arose 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, to the demagoguery of a Louis Farrakhan, to the race hustlers who came after him and called themselves black leaders.

What happened? For one thing, 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 he fought was tangible, palpable, 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.

But today's darkness eludes touch. It goes to and fro in the land, and walks freely up and down in it, recognizing no racial or political boundaries. It tempts all. It's a kind of equal-opportunity bigotry. It ensnarls the courts in endless disputations that defeat good will. It substitutes educanto for learning, and quotas for simple justice, once again putting group entitlements before individual rights. It labels any black spokesmen who don't adhere to the party line - Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Alan Keyes, luminaries all -traitors to their race.

A new intolerance divides us by Race and Gender and Ethnicity and Language, and into Minority and Majority, and generally makes many out of one, reversing that most American of mottos, E Pluribus Unum. Indeed, Al Gore, in one of his dimmer moments, once actually defined that phrase as "out of one, many." Which is good enough for government work in these multicultural times.

The light can be ignored only so long. John Marshall Harlan's old ideal of a color-blind Constitution will yet shine again. The radically conservative ideas of Martin Luther King will yet be revived. They already come back into fashion. You 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 a light. That is a hopeful sign.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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