Monday, January 21, 2008

Perspectives on MLK Day

By Rick Morris

America's most-scrutinized legal holiday is upon us. Every year, as Martin Luther King Day approaches, pundits everywhere ponder the meaning of the day, King's message, and what both would have meant going forward had the tragic circumstances in April of 1968 in Memphis not occurred.

This column, from the always-interesting Paul Greenberg, is entitled "Martin Luther King: The Radical as Conservative." In it, he argues somewhat persuasively that contrary to the image many now have as King the would-be changer of everything that America stood for, King actually was calling for America to reaffirm and live up to its stated values and for individuals to take the responsibility to better their own lives and those of their loved ones and countrymen. I agree, that does sound like a conservative message. As someone on the right, I can attest that true colorblindness is a conservative principle. What ended up muddying the waters on civil rights, to the long-term detriment of the conservative movement, was the fact that many powerful racist whites were able to tap into the legitimate language of "states' rights" and the resentment that flowed from the federal government asserting complete power over the states ever since FDH tried to unilaterally write the 10th Amendment out of the Constitution.

But ultimately, Greenberg does not account for the economic and foreign policy elements that were creeping into King's message in his final years. He was adopting many stances that were very, very liberal on redistribution of wealth and the rightful role of the United States and its military around the world. Given the fact that America was locked in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union and its satellites at the time and that the statist economic policies of the Great Society were creating incentives that further preyed upon poor communities, it's impossible for me or any other intellectually honest conservative to get behind that part of the message.

Personally, I've never been a huge fan of how exactly the holiday was implemented. Given that King was not so egocentric as to have wanted a personal celebration of himself every year and given that I think something that celebrates America is more appropriate, I'd rather that we have an annual "Equality Day" instead. Celebrate King, but also Nat Turner, Booker T. Washington and a host of others who worked to push America in the right direction. While we castigate ourselves endlessly for the sins of slavery, as we probably should, we also need to remember that no other nation fought a violent tug-of-war for its soul on that subject and came out the right way. Granted, the shameful Jim Crow era is impossible to put any kind of a gloss on, but again, America did respond to pressure to get rid of it. That's the beauty of this country; we screw up just as much as anyone else, but we're uniquely positioned to atone for our errors.

But it seems that we keep coming back to the same place, one that we are fated to repeat every year as a consensus about Martin Luther King fails to gel. His ultimate legacy and this holiday are like a national Rorschach Test as those of us from different points of view perceive what we are likely to see from our own perspectives.

1 comment:

Tony Mazur said...

I guess they gave Dr. King his own personal day because February is Black History Month. I'm not a big Black History Month fan because it just promotes racism.

"If they have 'Black History Month', then why don't they have 'White History Month'?"