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Monday, January 16, 2012

Libertarians and Martin Luther King Jr. --was Martin Luther King Jr. a Libertarian?

As the nation celebrates Martin Luther King day, many libertarians might wonder how compatible his views are with libertarianism. The libertarian Republican Congressman and presidential candidate, Ron Paul has said of Martin Luther King Jr., for instance:

"One of my heroes is Martin Luther King because he practiced the libertarian principle of peaceful resistance and peaceful civil disobedience, as did Rosa Parks."

Martin Luther King's struggle against the government, against the war in Vietnam, which he spoke out to criticize passionately, his belief in non-aggression, which is an axiom of libertarian political theory, but his belief in the necessity of armed self defense (something he shared in common with the pro-Second Amendment Malcolm X), as well as his use of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance to tyranny-- all these things appeal to libertarians. But was Martin Luther King Jr. a libertarian?

Here's Reason Magazine's take on the question, a pretty balanced answer and approach to understanding and contextualizing Martin Luther King from a libertarian perspective:

'In the minds of too many Americans, King is primarily a “black” leader and the civil rights movement he has come to embody is principally the endowment of black Americans. But that view inappropriately qualifies the man and the movement. King wasn't narrowly interested in race; he was broadly committed to justice.


King’s steadfast opposition to the conflict in Vietnam put him at odds with both President John F. Kennedy and much of the civil rights establishment, who believed his position jeopardized the movement. King responded characteristically in a 1968 speech:
Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" Vanity asks the question, "Is it popular?" But, conscience asks the question, "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right.
King's pursuit of justice wasn't without shortcomings, of course. He possessed a deep skepticism of markets and championed progressive poverty remedies like the so-called living wage. More generally, his conception of "social justice" conflated unassailably moral aims like the repeal of Jim Crow with redistributive measures that promote equality of outcome at the expense of equality under the law.'

A more critical view of Martin Luther King from a libertarian perspective can be found at, which systematically examines various claims about Martin Luther King and his relation to various libertarian principles and ideals:

Myths of Martin Luther King

There is probably no greater sacred cow in America than Martin Luther King Jr. The slightest criticism of him or even suggesting that he isn’t deserving of a national holiday leads to the usual accusations of racist, fascism, and the rest of the usual left-wing epithets not only from liberals, but also from many ostensible conservatives and libertarians.

This is amazing because during the 50s and 60s, the Right almost unanimously opposed the civil rights movement. Contrary to the claims of many neocons, the opposition was not limited to the John Birch Society and southern conservatives. It was made by politicians like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, and in the pages of Modern Age, Human Events, National Review, and the Freeman.

Today, the official conservative and libertarian movement portrays King as someone on our side who would be fighting Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton if he were alive. Most all conservative publications and websites have articles around this time of the year praising King and discussing how today’s civil rights leaders are betraying his legacy. Jim Powell’s otherwise excellent The Triumph of Liberty rates King next to Ludwig von Mises and Albert J. Nock as a libertarian hero. Attend any IHS seminar, and you’ll read "A letter from a Birmingham Jail" as a great piece of anti-statist wisdom. The Heritage Foundation regularly has lectures and symposiums honoring his legacy. There are nearly a half dozen neocon and left-libertarian think tanks and legal foundations with names such as "The Center for Equal Opportunity" and the "American Civil Rights Institute" which claim to model themselves after King. 

Why is a man once reviled by the Right now celebrated by it as a hero? The answer partly lies in the fact that the mainstream Right has gradually moved to the left since King’s death. The influx of many neoconservative intellectuals, many of whom were involved in the civil rights movement, into the conservative movement also contributes to the King phenomenon. This does not fully explain the picture, because on many issues King was far to the left of even the neoconservatives, and many King admirers even claim to adhere to principles like freedom of association and federalism. The main reason is that they have created a mythical Martin Luther King Jr., that they constructed solely from one line in his "I Have a Dream" speech.

In this article, I will try to dispel the major myths that the conservative movement has about King. I found a good deal of the information for this piece in I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King by black leftist Michael Eric Dyson. Dyson shows that King supported black power, reparations, affirmative action, and socialism. He believes this made King even more admirable. He also deals frankly with King’s philandering and plagiarism, though he excuses them. If you don’t mind reading his long discussions about gangsta rap and the like, I strongly recommend this book.

You can read the rest at

So Martin Luther King Jr. --libertarian or not?

I'll let you discuss and decide...

Wes Messamore,
Editor in Chief, THL
Articles | Author's Page

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