How depressing is it that the freshest commentary on Martin Luther King’s legacy is now twenty years old in its own right? Bill Clinton’s extended remarks at a Memphis church in 1993 remain the gold rhetorical standard for King commemoration: Clinton stretched a conventional riff about what King would make of contemporary America into an elegiac portrait of the self despair and internally inflicted injuries that haunt the black community, and the eloquence is deepened by Clinton’s sensitivity toward the national neglect that gave those wounds room to flourish.
Much of the speechifying and editorializing around this half week of “I Have a Dream” reminiscing will pale in comparison with Clinton’s talk. The favored cliché of a half empty, half full glass will pair the obvious successes—the fact that it will be a black president who occupies King’s place on the Lincoln Memorial to offer an official tribute; the emergence of a black economic elite that is one of the most potent consumer bases; the commonplace nature of advances for blacks in virtually every sector—with the just as apparent misses, from poverty to high rates of minority incarceration to the persistence of racial backlash. The most predictable liberal voices will invoke voter ID laws, stand your ground defenses, and stop and frisk police tactics in New York City as modern counterparts to Jim Crow and George Wallace, and conservative critics will seize on the gulf between each example and the harshly repressive color code of America pre 1965 to frame those same liberal voices as a farce.
There will be the inevitable effort to downsize King into the familiar ideological boxes of the past several decades. But while something should be said for Ross Douthat’s perspective that a few contemporary ideological battles have aligned at least some conservatives with traditional civil rights priorities on education and criminal justice reform, there is even more to be said for the notion that King had, and likely would have continued to have, an ambiguous relationship with liberalism. If LBJ’s Great Society wasn’t sufficient to deter King from making his last initiative a Poor People’s march on Washington, it’s reasonable to envision his evolution toward skepticism about other antipoverty programs and their effectiveness. And while some of the critique would have demanded more spending and redistribution, it’s fair to speculate if some of it could have sounded more right-leaning themes. A man who founded a civil rights movement on the ethic of individual participation and self-worth may well have uncomfortable with, for example, welfare unconnected to work requirements: and that would have sharply shifted the perimeter of the debate over welfare during the next 25 years, a period when pre Clinton liberals generally defended and wrote into law a vision of unconditional government assistance.
Does that mean that King was a prospective cheerleader for the Reagan agenda? Hardly, but it is not so difficult to imagine King sympathizing with Robert Kennedy’s famous description of public education as the second most distrusted institution in the inner city (trailing only the police). Or to see King turning into an early foe of the left’s contributions to urban pathology: from the hollowed out, decaying public housing structures crammed into the least desirable places on the city’s edge, to the bargains that political hacks negotiated, like a minimal police presence in exchange for peace with the gangs, and lucrative pensions for patronage jobs as a tradeoff for more robust social services. The interest group factionalism of the Democratic Party, it is also worth noting, is a descendant of the LBJ/Hubert Humphrey style liberalism that King seemed to be edging away from in his final months, in favor of Bobby Kennedy’s challenge to the Democratic machinery. If King had lived, it is not far-fetched to think that the next generation of partisan politics might have looked to him like something of a wasteland, as well as a protection racket for a lot of weak, ineffective dogmas.
In other words, one does not have to ridiculously envision King as a budget cutting, quota-bashing conservative to realize his potential for unsettling liberalism from a different, more eclectic vantage point. It is equally interesting to wonder how much polarization could have been avoided if one of the sharpest critics of urban dysfunction had been Martin Luther King as opposed to suburban conservatives, or if King’s evangelicalism had competed with fundamentalism to be the face of religion in politics during the seventies and eighties, or if King’s adeptness at defining a moral case for his goals had won over at least some of the blue collar whites and southern moderates who turned to the right.
That complex version of King that won’t receive enough analysis this week: the insurgent who understood the emptiness of ideological orthodoxy; the reformer who was slipping out of the orbit of patronage based, interest group politics that damages liberalism to this day; the Christian individualist who doubted solutions that didn’t rehabilitate dignity. And what Jesse Jackson likes to call the “plaster saint” King, the one whose message was simple enough to condense onto those “peace, justice, jobs” t-shirts I used to see in Selma: he has never existed, except at commemorative events.