There is an episode in the popular television sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, in which Jim Parsons’ character, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, watches The Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of his favourite movies, with his, for lack of a better word, girlfriend, Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler. Reflecting on the movie after, Dr. Fowler makes the observation that the movie’s main character, Indiana Jones, contributed nothing to the outcome of the plot. At the end of the movie the Nazis are destroyed by the shekinah glory that emerges from the Ark of the Covenant. This would have happened once they opened it one way or another and possibly a lot sooner had Indiana Jones not hindered their efforts to obtain the Ark. Needless to say, Dr. Cooper, a man who would make Narcissus look humble by comparison, and who considers himself to be the intellectual superior of the other scientists in his circle of übernerds, had completely overlooked this and was flabbergasted to have it pointed out to him.
At the risk of offending people I feel that it is incumbent upon me to point out that what Amy Farrah Fowler had observed about Indiana Jones' role in Raiders can also be said about the man who our American friends and neighbours are celebrating today.
Whenever someone questions the wisdom of the American government’s having decided, back in the 1980s, to award a day of honour to “Dr.” Martin Luther King Jr., even though they had decided to economize on national holidays by rolling the birthday of the father of their country into a generic “Presidents Day” in which Washington must share the honour with the likes of FDR, LBJ, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, the standard answer one receives is “look at all the good he accomplished”.
If you point out that MLK Jr. plagiarized his doctoral dissertation for Boston University from a previous dissertation by another student at the same university, Jack Boozer, the answer you will receive will be "So what? Look at all the good he did".
If you point out that MLK Jr., while an ordained Baptist minister, did not believe in such basic truths of Christianity as the deity, Virgin Birth, and bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the answer again will be "look at all the good he did".
If you point out that he surrounded himself with men like Stanley Levison, an advisor, speech-writer, and organizer of his, and Jack or Hunter Pitts O'Dell, an executive assistant of King's and director of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, both of whom had been high-ranking members of the Soviet-sponsored Communist Party USA in the 1950s, that he privately confessed to holding to the tenets of Marxist-Leninism, and was associated with a number of Communist fronts such as the Highlander Folk School, the answer that will come back to you as if from a stuck LP record will be "look at all the good he did!"
Well, all right then, what good did he do?
He was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s whose foremost achievement was the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States that would become the model for legislation such as the Race Relations Bill passed in the UK in 1968 and the Canadian Human Rights Act passed here in Canada in 1977. He is credited, in the popular imagination and in many a classroom, with having almost single-handedly slain the dragon of de jure racial segregation in the southern United States. Temporarily setting aside the question of the inherent goodness of integration and badness of segregation, let us look first at the matter of whether MLK Jr. actually deserves this credit.
De jure segregation in the southern United States began when the former Confederate States regained control of their domestic affairs after the post-1865 military occupation known as Reconstruction. The idea of "separate but equal" public facilities for blacks and whites was challenged in the American Supreme Court in 1896 on the grounds of the equality clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, the passing of which was one of the objectives of the Republicans in power in Congress in Reconstruction. SCUSA, in its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, upheld the constitutionality and legality of "separate but equal" in a 7 to 1 vote. This decision stood until the matter was revisited in 1954 in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, in which SCUSA reversed its earlier ruling and declared segregation to be unconstitutional and illegal.
The decision in Brown v. Board is susceptible to a number of criticisms, such as that it relied more upon the theories of social scientists than on constitutional law and that it set a dangerous precedent for subsequent judicial activism and intrusion into local decisions such as that in Roe v. Wade and for an excellent overview of its negative impact even on race relations, I recommend The New Color Line by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton. In the story of the fall of Jim Crow, however, it is Brown v. Board which fills the role of the Ark of the Covenant and MLK Jr. that of Indiana Jones. In Brown v. Board, SCUSA had already declared de jure segregation unconstitutional the year prior to that in which MLK Jr. was launched into celebrity and notoriety for the first time during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Segregation had already been dealt its death blow before MLK Jr.'s career in the media spotlight had even begun.
The court's ruling was resisted by the states with "separate but equal" laws, of course, but the American federal government was prepared to back the decision with force and so Brown v. Board rendered the abolition of the Jim Crow type of segregation a fait accompli. MLK Jr.'s greatest actual achievement, the passing in Congress of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 owed as much to the death of JFK the preceding fall as it did to King's efforts, but, more importantly, this bill was designed, not to get rid of segregation laws but rather to impose integration.
Laws which require the separation of the races were widely perceived to be unjust for a number of reasons. From a classical liberal or libertarian point of view they would be considered an unjust infringement upon the freedom of association. This, however, is also true of the imposed integration of the US Civil Rights Act for this bill forbade private acts of discrimination and true freedom of association includes the freedom not to associate. It further, seems quite self-evident that forcing ethnic groups with a mutual distrust of each other into each other's company is hardly conducive to promoting the kind of harmony between groups within a society that is necessary for a peaceful civil order. That imposed integration did not prove to be satisfactory to those it was supposed to help is evident in the way blacks and other racial minorities,or at least progressives purporting to speak on their behalf, have been calling for the return of segregation in recent years. They do not call it segregation, of course, they prefer politically correct euphemisms like "safe spaces", but the concept is essentially that of racial segregation, albeit designed to benefit racial minorities rather than whites.
Martin Luther King Jr. did not accomplish the good that he is credited with, the abolition of Jim Crow, and what he actually accomplished, the forced integration of the American Civil Rights Act and imitation legislation in Canada and the UK, is no more just than segregation itself and is a generator of racial strife and discord. Perhaps our American neighbours ought to reconsider keeping the third Monday in January in remembrance of this man every year.
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