Ben Johnson: MLK Was No "Conservative"

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of FrontPage Magazine]

As much as I hate to take issue with my colleagues here, it is hyperbolic to call Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a “conservative.” It is true King was no New Left radical. He had little use for Malcolm X and in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” he famously denounced “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist.” But King’s views before his antiwar speech were left-of-center, for his day or ours. King believed in a guaranteed annual  income, opposed Vietnam well before 1967, and, “content of their character” notwithstanding, voiced support for some form of racial preferences.

Perhaps most to the point is King’s support for the government’s guaranteeing everyone a minimum — but not minimal — salary…

King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? “I am now convinced…the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” But “to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure” it “must be pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels of income” and “must automatically increase as the total social income grows.” So far, his proposal was not materially different from Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth program. This was from his later works, but he had voiced support for “a modified form of socialism” for some time. While accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King told the press, “We feel we have much to learn from Scandinavia’s democratic socialist tradition and from the manner in which you have overcome many of the social and economic problems that still plague far more powerful and affluent nations.”

It’s somewhat cynical to attribute King’s opposition to the war only to the flagging fortunes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC went through dark days, especially following King’s unsuccessful Chicago campaign and seeming inability to crack northern cities, but King had spoken out against the war years before his  “Beyond Vietnam” speech. In March 1965, he offered to write a letter to all parties, including the Soviet Union, to come to a peace negotiation, and he asked President Johnson to halt the bombing. He added:  “The war in Vietnam is accomplishing nothing…We certainly are not winning the war.” For two years, he moderated himself, mindful of his standing in Washington. According to numerousbiographers, King’s decided to take a more strident role on Vietnam after seeing a photo essay entitled “The Children of Vietnam” contained in the January 1967 issue of Ramparts.

By 1968, he had climbed so far out on a ledge that he was approached about running as a third party candidate through Stanley Levison (who did, in fact, have Communist associates, although some question his relationship with them). William Sloane Coffin, who was by then already infamous, and perennial Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas broached the topic to Levison, and King termed the prospect “an interesting idea.” Although he turned them down, King entertained offers seriously enough to concern LBJ (which, by 1968, took precious little effort). King’s proposed running mate, Dr. Benjamin Spock, would run for president in 1972 as the candidate of the People’s Party/Peace and Freedom Party...

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