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Aug 31, 2011

Conservatives & MLK

Michael Kazin has an interesting piece in this week’s New Republic, chastising conservatives such as Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and Charles Krauthammer for misappropriating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Kazin notes the comments of such figures praising King’s work, but adds that “such paeans still sound quite bizarre coming from a Right that is opposing even the slightest attempt at stimulating the economy to help people who need jobs, good schools, and medical care.” His essay provides a reminder of King’s left-wing views on economic issues during the 1960s.

In fairness to Bachmann, et al., it seems to me plausible to argue that a political figure can praise King’s commitment to political reform and equal rights without necessarily endorsing his economic vision. After all, many members of Congress in the 1960s who supported the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act didn’t endorse all (or even much) of King’s economic agenda.

There is, however, one element of the contemporary conservative movement that pretty clearly is misappropriating King’s legacy. The National Organization of Marriage, an anti-gay marriage group, has recently attracted attention for a policy pledge, endorsed by all the major 2012 GOP presidential candidates, which includes support for a plebiscite in D.C. to ban gay marriage there. Last year in Minnesota, the group started running ads demanding that Minnesotans receive a right to vote on a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The preference for plebiscites makes sense for NOM, given that gay marriage opponents skew toward senior citizens and people without college educations, groups represented in proportionally larger numbers in an electorate than in legislatures or the courts.

A NOM radio ad, however, implied that King would endorse such a tactic: “The right to vote, our most important civil right. Martin Luther King said it simply. Yet some politicians in Minnesota want to impose gay marriage without a vote of the people.” (The TV version of the ad showed King, but didn’t quote from him.) NOM’s Brian Brown explained the ad’s rationale: “Just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for the civil rights of Americans, we echo his words to give people the ballot and let the people vote.

King never had a position on marriage equality, obviously, but it’s hard to argue that he supported using plebiscites to decide the rights of minority groups. During his lifetime, the most significant such effort was California’s Proposition 14, the 1964 referendum that sought to overturn the state’s fair housing law. King not only didn’t suggest that Californians’ “right to vote” on the discriminatory measure was “our most important civil right,” but he argued that approving Proposition 14 would “be one of the most shameful developments in our nation’s history.” King’s stance had little impact: Proposition 14 overwhelmingly passed, and helped sink the re-election campaign of Senator Pierre Salinger, who had vociferously opposed the measure. The Supreme Court invalidated the referendum in 1967, in Reitman v. Mulkey.

So while Kazin might be overly aggressive in suggesting that praise for King’s legacy can’t be reconciled with opposition to King’s economic beliefs, conservatives can fairly be criticized for misappropriating King’s words and work to support the concept of putting minority rights up to a popular vote.

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