*Notice* Ordinarily it is my policy, once an essay has been published here, not to edit it other than to correct typos - mistakes, in spelling, punctuation, etc. In this case, however, I had pre-written this essay and scheduled it to be posted at a certain time, then, upon re-reading it, realized that there were three places where further words would improve the essay. I edited the essay as a Word document, the edits consisting of three new paragraphs. I intended to insert these into the essay here before the post-time but was prevented to do so by technical difficulties. I have now edited the essay to include them. They are the paragraph between the last paragraph in the general history of white/black relations in the United States and the first paragraph in the specific history of MLK Jr., the paragraph which begins with "While civil disobedience may start non-violently", and the paragraph that is the penultimate paragraph in the edited version of the essay. - GTN, January 22, 2013 *End Notice*
Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, explains the reasonableness of orthodox Christian doctrine by drawing analogies between God as Creator and the artist, especially the creative writer. In her last chapter she applies what she had written in her previous chapters by arguing against “the purely analytical approach to phenomena” which she maintains is something that “has gone seriously wrong with our conception of humanity and of humanity’s proper attitude to the universe”. In this purely analytical approach, the difficulties that we experience are regarded as a series of problems to solve. Drawing upon her own experience as a mystery writer she argues that the detective story formula of problem-solution should not be regarded as a model for dealing with things that arise in real life because such stories are written to make the problem fit the solution. It is not only the writer of detective stories, that includes and excludes details to fit a solution, however. Sayers writes:
Somewhat similarly, the popular game of debunking great men usually proceeds by excluding their insoluble greatness from the terms of the roblem and presenting a watery solution of the remainder; but this is, by definition, no solution of the man or of his greatness. (1)
In other words, the virtues, strengths, and achievements for which the man is considered to be great are ignored by the debunker who instead focuses his efforts on debunking other, lesser, aspects of the man’s life and character.
The game of debunking great men has not gotten any less popular since The Mind of the Maker was first published. If anything it has gotten more popular. It is not a game to everyone, however. In the classroom and in the media progressive intellectuals frequently attempt to debunk the founders and leaders of their countries and of the Christian religion, and the writers, poets, artists, and thinkers who have contributed to Western civilization for the last three millennia. For whatever reason the progressive enjoys doing this – Robert Frost’s famous quip about a liberal being someone “who is too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel” comes to mind – he takes his self-appointed task as the debunker of a civilization and culture built on injustice very seriously indeed. His arguments, however, read like they were written to illustrate what Dorothy Sayers had written about debunking great men seventy two years ago.
It would be a very simple matter to debunk the subject of this essay in this way. Martin Luther King Jr. was ordained in a church whose doctrines he no longer believed in (2), was awarded a doctorate for a plagiarized dissertation (3), was a life-long womanizer and adulterer and had ties to subversive organizations allied with the power that was his country’s biggest enemy at the time. (4) By concentrating on these things one can attack his reputation without ever having to address the ideas, actions, and accomplishments that reputation is built upon.
That will not be the method of this essay. Instead, we will criticize the very things King's reputation is built upon. Whether this will be a more successful method of debunking remains to be seen.
There are three overlapping but distinct levels of admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. He is admired by black Americans as a leader of their people who fought for their equality, justice, and rights against racial segregation and discrimination. The American federal government by making the third Monday in January to be a holiday in his honour declared him to be a national hero of the United States to be revered by all Americans. Progressive liberals have declared him to be worthy of universal admiration and have essentially made an idol out of him.
This third level of admiration – or rather adoration – is the reason for this essay. The question of whom they choose to honour as heroes is one to be decided by blacks and Americans for themselves. The rest of us have no say in the matter although we are free, of course, to comment on the decisions they make. When, however, progressives trot out the images they have erected in the United States before the rest of the world and, like Nebuchadnezzar, demand that we all bow down and worship them it then becomes our business.
The same ideas, words, acts, and accomplishments are the foundation of King’s reputation at all three levels. If that foundation is strong enough to support the edifice that has been erected upon it at one level that does not mean it is capable of supporting the structure the next level up. If King’s actions on their behalf justify the esteem in which black Americans hold him that does not necessarily mean that they warrant his being considered a national hero by all Americans, and even if it could be argued that his actions benefited the country as a whole justifying his status at that level it does not follow that he is worthy of universal adoration.
Our examination of the life and achievements of King must begin by placing him within his historical context.
European settlers began to establish colonies in the Americas in the late fifteenth century and in the sixteenth century they began to import slaves. Most of these slaves were Africans, purchased by the Europeans from African tribes who had captured them in war or raids. In the eighteenth century, several British colonies in North America broke away Great Britain to form the American republic. These colonies – now states – disagreed among themselves as to what kind of country they wanted to build. Some, based primarily in the south, wanted a traditional, rural, agrarian country. Others, based primarily in the northeast, wanted a modern, urban, industrial country. The African slaves were caught in the middle of the conflict between these two sides. The plantations in the south were the primary destination of slaves brought into the United States, but northern merchants were the primary importers.
In the early nineteenth century Britain and the other European powers abolished the Atlantic slave trade. Realizing that they were about to be put out of business for good the northern slave merchants decided that the south should be made to bear the burden of their costs, sold all their remaining slaves to the south, then became abolitionists overnight. The conflict between the northern, urban, merchant-industrialists and the southern, rural, agrarians continued to escalate until, a little under a century after the Americans declared their independence from Britain, it grew into an outright war in which the south sought to break away from the American republic and the north went to war to impose its vision of industrial modernity upon the entire country. The north won and one of the first things they did after securing their victory was to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in the United States.
The question then, for north and south alike, was what to do about the fact that they now had a large population of newly freed ex-slaves on their hands. Initially the south could not do anything about it because they were under martial law, disenfranchised, and forced to watch while the northern opportunists they called carpetbaggers, aided by turncoats whom the other southerners contemptuously called scalawags, looted them. Once they regained control of their states they passed the Jim Crow laws establishing racial segregation. Under these laws blacks and whites would go to separate schools, drink from separate water fountains, use separate washrooms, etc. The north opted for a different approach. Initially, they banned free blacks from settling in their states altogether, then, when they realized they could use a supply of cheap labour, they invited blacks to move to northern factory cities like Detroit and Chicago. Needless to say these were not optimal circumstances for establishing good relations between the blacks who moved north and the northern white industrial working classes.
There is no way this history can be honestly interpreted so that blacks can be said to have been treated justly in all of this. The popular narrative, however, in which slavery and segregation are blamed for all of the problems black people currently face in the United States, is not a valid reading of this history either, and a case can be made that in fact the post-emancipation actions of the north has contributed far more to the present problems affecting American blacks than either slavery or segregation.
Thus was the setting of the historical stage when Martin Luther King Jr. made his appearance upon it. King was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1929. His maternal grandfather was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a position that would be taken over by King’s father when he was very young. Eventually, in 1960, King himself would join his father as co-pastor of this church. By that time he was already a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
King grew up in Atlanta and graduated from his father’s alma mater Morehead College. Deciding to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, he pursued graduate degrees in theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and Boston University. The latter conferred upon him his doctorate in the spring of 1955. In December of that same year the incident took place that was to launch his career in the public eye. Rosa Parks was arrested and fined in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. King, who had become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery the year before, led a boycott of the public transit system in protest. This brought King into the spotlight and during the next twelve years, with the help of the media, he built up his reputation as a civil rights activist who used non-violent civil disobedience to achieve his goals. Before discussing that career, however, we should take note of something that occurred the year prior to the Rosa Parks arrest because the timing of the two events is of some importance to how we interpret King and his career. The event in question is the Supreme Court of America’s final ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
Brown v. Board is not a textbook example of how a court is supposed to arrive at a decision. Indeed, it could be used to illustrate what a court is not supposed to do. Rather than making its ruling on the basis of the constitution, the law, and past precedent, the Warren Court based its decision to overturn the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson and to rule segregation in schools to be unconstitutional, on a United Nations fatwa against racism and the arguments of sociologists and psychologists. (5) Regardless, it is the significance of the decision that is relevant to our discussion. That significance is this – Brown v. Board meant that the end of de jure racial segregation in the United States was inevitable. The decision met with resistance, of course, and the American federal government ended up sending in troops to enforce it. Some interesting things could be said about how all of this contributed to the triumph of an empire centred in Washington D. C. over local and regional cultures in the United States but this too is not the point here. If segregation’s death knoll had sounded with the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954, what does this say about the arguments King gave in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” justifying the civil disobedience of a career which began in 1955?
There is a lot of confusion about civil disobedience due to a subtle distinction that is easy to miss. Of actions that are against the law, some we say, are mala prohibita. This means that it is wrong to commit these acts only because the law tells you not to. Other actions are mala in se, which means that they are wrong in and of themselves regardless of whether there is a law against them or not. Now, if there are acts which are wrong in themselves, apart from any law, that means that there is a higher law than the laws made by human societies, by which the laws made by human societies are to be judged. It is on this basis that we speak of just and unjust laws. A just law is a law which conforms to the higher law not made by man whereas an unjust law is a law which violates the higher law. One way in which a law can be unjust is if it imposes upon people a requirement to do something which is malum in se, which is wrong in itself. Think of, for example, a law requiring you to sacrifice your first-born son to an idol. There is a moral obligation to disobey such laws. This, despite the fact that it is the sort of thing those who believe in civil disobedience will point to in order to justify their theory, is not what is meant by civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience is not merely a matter of refusing to obey laws which order you to do something horrible. It is a deliberate disobeying of the law, perhaps a law that is itself unjust but not necessarily a law that requires you to do something unjust – note the distinction, as a form of activism. There are different kinds of civil disobedience. There is the ‘non-violent resistance” variety, in which the person breaking a law he considers to be unjust, does so with the expectation that he will receive punishment in order to make a statement about the law and the government, with the idea that in doing so he will gain popular sympathy and support wherewith to convince or compel the government to change the law. This is the kind of civil disobedience we ordinarily associate with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.. The nineteenth century American crackpot who dreamed up the idea of civil disobedience in the first place, however, Henry David Thoreau, did not limit the concept to such acts. A revolutionary and anarchist, he believed in violent civil disobedience both in theory, and in the practice of violent would-be reformers like John Brown.
In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, King attempted to give a prestigious pedigree to civil disobedience, by citing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Biblical book of Daniel, the early Christians under Roman persecution, Greek philosopher Socrates, and the Boston Tea Party as examples. Only the last of these is a true example of civil disobedience. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to break the law of their God by obeying Nebuchadnezzar’s decree that they bow down and worship his golden statue. They did not do so as a protest against the injustice of the king, whose authority they respected. Civil disobedience is against both the teachings and example of Jesus and His Apostles and the response of the early Christian apologists, to the unjust persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, was to write defences of the Christian faith which included the argument that Christianity made people better, more law-abiding, citizens. Of all the examples King gave, Socrates is the most hilarious. King may have been thinking of Socrates’ refusal to take part in the arrest and execution of Leon of Salamis but this was a matter of not carrying out an order that commanded him to do something unjust. In Plato’s Crito, which is set three days before Socrates’ death, Socrates is visited by his lifelong friend Crito, a wealthy Athenian farmer, who informs him that his death is imminent and urges him to escape, offering his assistance. Socrates’ response is that while the Athenian judgement against him was unjust, it would be wrong for him to commit an injustice against Athens and its laws in return, which he would be doing so if he rejected their authority and made his escape.
We have a moral obligation to obey the law and we are only excused from this obligation when the law itself tells us to do something that morally wrong. Civil disobedience, the breaking of laws one disagrees with even if they do not require one to do something wrong, as a means of effecting social change is morally wrong. It is all the more inexcusable when the desired change is already in the process of happening which, as we have seen, was the case with Martin Luther King, whose career in civil disobedience began after the Supreme Court had made the end of segregation inevitable.
While civil disobedience may start out non-violently it does not stay that way. It goes beyond both lawful dissent and the refusal to commit a morally wrong act that is required by an unjust law. The deliberate breaking of the law in order to achieve one's ends, however noble those ends, and however restrained and conscientious one might be in choosing the laws one breaks encourages others to follow one's example and to go further than one would oneself. One of the problems afflicting the black community in the United Stated today is crime. While most blacks are law-abiding citizens, a disproportionately large percentage of blacks compared to the general population, commit and are victims of crime. Progressives, when they acknowledge this problem at all, rather than denying it and blaming black overrepresentation among the arrested and convicted on police racism, say that it is the result of slavery, segregation and white racism in general. Surely, however, any reasonable person would agree that a significant contributing factor must be the establishment and glorification of King, a man who used defiance of the law as a means to achieve his ends, as a hero of their people.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was in a number of ways a-typical of King’s activism. It was just a boycott, for one thing, which under most circumstances would be perfectly legal and therefore not be considered an act of civil disobedience. In this case he was charged with breaking an obscure law, but the point remains that it was far more reasonable and less deliberately provocative than would be typical of his subsequent actions. For another thing, it took place within the city where he lived and pastored at the time. Far more typical of King was the Birmingham incident of 1963.
In Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. did what he had been doing throughout the southern United States in the previous seven years and what he had established the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to do. He came into a community where he was an outsider, bringing with him media agents who were even further removed from the community than he was, and stirred up trouble between local blacks and the authorities, so that his media friends could take pictures and write stories that placed the authorities in the worst possible light and made him out to be a saint. (6)
Although King continued to be an activist until an assassin ended his life in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, he reached the peak of his career in 1963. Later that year, in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, he delivered the speech which contains his most famous words. The Civil Rights Act which the American Congress passed the following year was largely in response to the demands made in this march. In terms of its impact, this Civil Rights Act is King’s greatest achievement.
But what kind of achievement is it?
The Civil Rights Act did not just make de jure racial discrimination, i.e., racial discrimination enshrined in law, illegal in the United States. It forbade racial discrimination on the part of private individuals and businesses as well. This was the reason Republican Senator Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona voted against the Act. It had a number of consequences.
It created, for example, the kind of situation in which a civil rights organization approaches an employer and says “you are located in a city where x percentage of the population is black, but only y percentage of your employees are black, you are guilty of racial discrimination and we are going to sue you.” How does the employer prove that racial discrimination was not a factor in his hiring decisions? It is virtually impossible to do so and in a sane legal system no one would ever be called upon to prove such a thing. Anti-discrimination legislation like the American Civil Rights Act, however, place employers accused of racial discrimination in the situation of having to try and prove their innocence.
To avoid being at the mercy of the civil rights shakedown employers had to set aside a certain number of jobs for blacks. The fact that this too was a form of racial discrimination did not matter – for the courts and civil rights organizations, discrimination only flowed in one direction.
Then the courts ruled that employers could not use competency tests in hiring if those tests had a “disparate impact” upon blacks or other racial minorities. In other words, if one of the results of the test was that less than the required percentage of blacks or other racial minorities, even if this was not intentional on the part of the employer or the person who made the test, the test was discriminatory and could not be used. (7)
None of this would have been possible without the Civil Rights Act the effects of which extend beyond the borders of the United States as imitation bills began to pop up in other Western countries – the Race Relations Bill of 1968 in the United Kingdom, for example, or the 1977 Canadian Human Rights Act. The American bill paved the way for these other bills which often went even further than the American bill.
The raising of King from a hero of American blacks, to an American national hero, to a universal figure to be revered by all, is based on the idea that in fighting for the rights of his own people, which earned him their esteem, he combated racism which is an evil that hurt the United States as a whole and indeed the entire world, therefore his fight against it deserves the respect of the entire world. At first glance that seems quite reasonable.
What is racism however? The word is of recent origins, however old the phenomenon it is supposed to denote may be, being no older than the 1930s, and there was a time in living memory when there was a consensus as to its meaning. It could be defined either positively or negatively. If defined positively, it meant the belief in the superiority of one’s own race. If defined negatively, it meant the dislike of and/or mistreatment of people of other races, whether this meant a general dislike of everyone who is not of your own race or a specific dislike of members of a certain race. Today, however, it is used in ways that seem to have no relationship with these definitions.
Take, for example, a rapper who fills his lyrics with hatred towards white people, expressed in violent and even genocidal terms. The term racist is far less likely to be applied to him than it is to a white person, who with no conscious belief in the superiority of his own race or dislike towards other races, gets an education, finds a job, builds a career, marries and has kids, and basically goes through life trusting the system to work for him. Progressive liberals, whose thought is pervasive throughout academia, the news and entertainment media, most churches, and, at least on this subject, all political parties, insist that the former is merely expressing his legitimate anger due to his disenfranchisement, whereas the latter’s refusal to acknowledge that he benefits from “white privilege” generated by “institutional racism” is itself a form of racism. Clearly, whatever these people think the word racism means, if they even know themselves, has little if anything to do with what everyone used to think the word meant. It is also clear, at least to those who are fortunate enough not to be trapped in this kind of Orwellian doublethink, that this kind of thought is itself racist against white people because it establishes a way of thinking in which white people are always racist, even if they have no conscious belief in their own superiority or conscious dislike of other people, whereas other people are never racist even if they consciously hate white people.
There are many that would claim that this is no part of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Such people insist that King was a classical liberal, whose vision was of a society where everyone was evaluated as an individual, and who would be as opposed to reverse discrimination and anti-white attitudes as he was to discrimination against his own people. For evidence of their claim they point to his “I have a dream” speech. Others, however, believe that King’s vision was much more radical than this, that he believed that racism pervaded the very structure of American society, which would need to be torn down and rebuilt to eliminate the injustice created by slavery and segregation. While this debate has to be regarded as the inevitable result of King’s apotheosis – those who accept the new deity but hold opposing visions of society each try to claim the deity for their own side - it is quite clear from his words and actions which side he, a self-avowed Marxist, leaned towards.
As for King's dream of a day when his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin, consider what happened in the United States five years ago and again last year. "Race is only skin deep", progressives insist confusing the outward indicators of race, such as skin colour, with its essential meaning, which is lineage, ancestry, and descent. In 2008 a man was elected President of the United States, whose skin colour was all that he really shared with the American black community. Barack Obama's father was a Kenyan - his ancestors were not brought to America as slaves, nor did they live through segregation. His mother was a white liberal. When he was elected he received a huge percentage of the black vote and much of the white vote as well and his skin colour was a significant contributing factor to his receiving both the black and the white liberal vote. His victory was declared by many to be the triumph of King's dream. The largest irony in all of this is that they were absolutely right. Obama's election was the ultimate triumph of Martin Luther King, over logic and common sense, if not over racism.
For this reason, we must, in obedience to the higher law, refuse to prostrate ourselves before this new idol the progressives have commanded us to worship.
(1) Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1970), p. 211. The book was first published by Harcourt, Brace in 1941.
(3) See Theodore Pappas, The Martin Luther King Jr. Plagiarism Story (Rockford, Illinois: The Rockford Institute, 1994).
(4) Samuel T. Francis, “The King Holiday and Its Meaning”, American Renaissance, February, 1998.
(5) See the discussion of this in Paul Craig Roberts & Lawrence M. Stratton, The New Color Line: How Quotas and Privilege Destroy Democracy (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 1995), pp. 21-50.
(6) See Gail Jarvis, “Birmingham: The Rest of the Story”, LewRockwell.com, November 23, 2003.
(7) The ruling in which this took place was Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1970). See the discussion of this case in Roberts and Stratton, op. cit., pp. 95-102.