In Washington, there now stands a new memorial: a 30-foot-tall granite statue of Martin Luther King Jr. overlooking the Tidal Basin. For decades, liberals and some conservatives have deified King as the last of the Founding Fathers, a man whose opposition to Jim Crow embodied the culmination of the Declaration of Independence’s promise of individual liberty and equal rights for all Americans, regardless of race. This is only partly true: King helped to both liberate and further hold back black Americans.
Undoubtedly, King deserves much praise. He spearheaded a noble movement that eventually achieved true justice and individual freedoms for blacks in the segregated South. Today, it is hard to imagine the intense level of racial hatred and institutionalized discrimination blacks faced on a daily basis. Voting rights were denied. Lynching was common. Economic opportunities were meager. They were systematically segregated, forced to live in impoverished neighborhoods, attend inferior schools, sit at separate lunch counters and ride at the back of the bus. Kids could not even purchase an ice cream cone from white vendors. Jim Crow was a form of apartheid, an official system of racial subjugation.
It took more than a decade but the civil rights movement finally succeeded in abolishing this moral abomination. Many activists - blacks and whites - suffered and died because of their noble convictions. As its leader, King justifiably achieved international fame. His finest hour was his “I Have a Dream” speech. He championed black integration and a color-blind society. His message was a powerful and simple one: People should be judged by the content of their character, not skin color.
Yet, there was a dark side to King and it should not be ignored. Its effects continue to plague our society. Contrary to popular myth, the Baptist minister was a hypocrite who consistently failed to uphold his professed Christian standards. His rampant adultery and serial, life-long womanizing revolted even some of his closest associates. Large parts of his doctoral dissertation were plagiarized. He had numerous ties with communists and Soviet sympathizers. Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew this, which is why he considered King a “fraud.”
Moreover, King was a radical leftist. He promoted socialism, pacifism and the appeasement of totalitarian communism. He opposed the Vietnam War and even openly supported the Viet Cong and North Vietnam’s Marxist dictator Ho Chi Minh, praising them as anti-imperialists battling Western occupying powers. Yet, these Soviet-backed communists would eventually impose a murderous police state upon the Vietnamese. King embraced the 1960s New Left’s hatred of America. In their eyes, the United States was an evil empire driven by white oppression, militarism and capitalist exploitation. King openly promoted the anti-colonial “liberation” movements engulfing the Third World. For example, he defended Ghanaian strongman Kwame Nkrumah, excusing his authoritarian rule and forced nationalization.
At home, he called for heavy public spending, urban renewal and a cradle-to-grave nanny state. He was critical of the Great Society for not going far enough: White America’s collective racist sins could only be expiated through big-government liberalism. King called for racial quotas in government contracts, affirmative action and billions in welfare assistance. In short, he helped lay the groundwork for the modern Democratic Party - anti-war, favoring the redistribution of wealth and obsessed with identity politics.
King’s leftism ultimately betrayed his original civil rights creed. His call for a color-blind society was contradicted by his multicultural progressivism. Affirmative action, racial quotas, government handouts to minorities - these policies directly violate the basic principle of equality under the law. Contemporary Americans are not judged as individuals, but as members of a racial group, gender or ethnicity. This is a perverse inversion of the very kind of racialism prevalent in the Old South. More than 40 years after his death, we are further away from being a genuine meritocracy. Victimology and racial set-asides dominate large swathes of American life, from university admissions and government bureaucracies to big business and construction. The country has slowly Balkanized, splintering along ethnic lines.
King’s socialism also convinced many blacks to adopt welfare liberalism. It transformed them into a permanent Democratic constituency. The results have been disastrous. The nanny state has crippled the black community, undermining self-reliance, entrepreneurship and personal responsibility. It has fostered family breakdown, soaring rates of illegitimacy and trapped millions in a cycle of poverty and urban squalor. King showed blacks the way out from segregation, but he led them to an economic plantation.
The great irony is that more Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act than Democrats. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the legislation but to overcome the intense hostility of Southern Democrats he needed - and received - strong GOP congressional support. The party of Lincoln not only freed the slaves, it helped to dismantle Jim Crow. Instead of rewarding Republicans, blacks have largely turned their backs on them and with that, have rejected the self-empowerment and prosperity that comes from free-market capitalism.
King’s legacy has been a double-edged sword: He both liberated and imprisoned black America. As we celebrate his achievements with the new memorial in the nation’s capital, for the sake of future generations, let us remember too how King erred. In order to truly create a society where all citizens rise to the height of their potential, we must discard the shackles of affirmative action and the welfare state.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.