I originally wrote the following for BCC back on January 18, 2010.

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of my very favorite figures in the history of American politics and social thought. I have always had a special respect for the civil rights movement, even during my days as a conservative. But King himself holds a special place in my thinking today. I think this is largely because King represented a form of left- leaning liberalism that died in American politics when he died in Memphis.

Some of his greatest moments are the moments which made him a controversial figure during his day. In many ways, our image of King as a non-controversial figure misses out of some of the things which make him great.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, he rejects calls to wait rather than act, we see the most eloquent and passionate rejection of Burkean gradualism since Thomas Paine. In American thought, King is very much a mixture of Paine and Thoreau: a advocate of a rights revolution of non-violence. I am not sure if you can beat that.

His “Beyond Vietnam” speech stands as one of the most articulate moral arguments against that war. While we are well aware of the eventual widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, King’s 1967 speech was before the public turned against it. He took a stand against the war before most public officials would do so publicly (almost a year before Walter Conkite’s famed turn against the prudence of the war). The part of the speech which stands out most to me is his assertion that the Vietnamese were people, too. This is a truth that was lost on our war policy of that time, and ours.

When I lived in Idaho, it is not unusual to see a letter to the editor which complained about Martin Luther King Day because King was a communist. The best part of the communist charge is that it is false and a relic of a time when unpopular figure of the left was a communist. He was an egalitarian and a radical one at that. He was a critic of American capitalism. This might make him some form of social democrat or socialist (I proudly claim to be both) but he is anything but a Soviet Marxist. In many way he was a Hugh Nibley with social organization skills.

Of course, you have to keep in mind that these myths are usually spread by John Birch Society-types who consider William F. Buckley and George Will to be communists. Within Mormon culture, this perspective of King and the Civil Rights movement was advocated by Ezra Taft Benson. Mainstream conservativism and the GOP long ago distanced itself from this lunacy. We are stuck with it.

I relate strongly to the world-view when he stated in his “Where Do We Go From Here” in 1967:

What I’m saying to you this morning is that Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

I love King for his willingness to go beyond basic civil and voting rights and to call for a more equal America. It is also why his vision is still a vision for our day, though a very distant vision. We have spent the last 40 years moving away from King’s vision of a more egalitarian society. Am I hopeful that his dream will ever be realized? I am not sure anymore. If anything I am more pessimistic than ever about the prospect of a just America.

Do I believe in the dream? Absolutely. The whole dream.


About Chris Henrichsen

Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • the narrator

    Thanks Chris H. Though you forgot to begin by pointing out that King was an adulterer and plagiarized. Any true honoring of King should begin by throwing mud at him.

  • Angie

    My husband and I named our son after Malcolm X, because I so admire his fierce integrity. But every time I read something like your OP, I am reminded of how much I also respect King and the work he did. (His failings don’t negate the good he contributed, right, Narrator?)

    Have you ever read a book called Martin, Malcolm, & America?

  • Chris H.


    the narrator was alluding to a few posts elsewhere on the Mormon channel on Patheos. In that post, Dr. King personal imperfections were use to attach his character and his work. This post is a response to that one.

    As for Malcolm X, I have not studied him as directly at I have MLK. There is a certain liberalism in the work of MLK that draws me to him. I have read a bit about Malcolm X is a historical perspective. I am ashamed to admit that much of my knowledge about Malcolm X is from the Spike Lee movie about him that came out when I was in high school growing up in Maryland.

    I will check out Martin, Malcolm, & America. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Joe

    I do not understand how anyone can be proud to be a socialist, given the fruits of the National Socialist German Workers Party.

    If by their fruits you shall know them, why has socialism not been abandoned, as the plan that entails the killing of many millions to “encourage” (coerce) the obedience of those left alive?

    Or, are you proud of a socialism you hope will be accomplished without all the killing?

    I have heard the analogy “In order to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs”. Well, we’ve seen millions of broken eggs, can you point out any actual omelettes that have resulted from the egg-breaking?

  • Chris H.

    I do not understand how anyone can be a proud Republican, given the fruits of the Iraqi Republican Guard.

  • Joe

    You say, “In that post, Dr. King personal imperfections were use to attach his character and his work.” That’s an outright lie, if you are referring to DCP’s post.

    DCP listed only three flaws, and here’s his judgement of them
    1) Plagierism in dissertation (unfortunate)
    2) Adulteries (unfortunate)
    3) blurring Civil Rights mission with Leftist causes (unfortunate).

    DCP then complimented Kings character much more:
    1) MLK was remarkably brave
    2) MLK was much better man than his killer.
    3) MLK was stunningly eloquent, moved millions, and still moves DCP
    4) MLKs oratoricial skills greatly exceed Obamas, and the content of MLKs speeches was not confused and vacuous like Obamas speeches.
    5) DCP honors MLK’s role in effecting change that DCP is pleased with.
    6) MLK had moral courage, in bringing the wrongs of racism to the national stage
    7) DCP marvels at MLK’s achievements and the mark he left, all before his death at 39

    So, DCP mentions three undisputed character flaws of MLK, and the strongest judgement he passes on those flaws is that they were “unfortunate”, that although MLK was flawed, so are we all, and he will leave the judging to a merciful God.
    DCP then compliments seven specific character attributes of MLK that he (DCP) honors and marvels at.
    That’s simply NOT an “attack” on MLK’s character and work, and is hardly “mud-slinging”. And, I think you know this, and you have made a knowing, deliberate mischaracterization of what DCP actually said, which makes it a lie. If you did not knowingly, deliberately mischaracterize what DCP said and were simply mistaken due to sloppiness in your reading, then you should find my reply refreshingly informative and you will likely correct your misunderstanding, now that you have been correctly informed.

  • Chris H.

    Refreshingly, indeed.

  • Joe

    I’m certainly not a Republican, and couldn’t bring myself to vote for Romney any more than I could bring myself to vote for Obama.
    But point taken.
    I did see a slight difference – being a “Republican” (Big R) presumably means being a member of a particular party, whereas being a “socialist” (small s) presumably means subscribes to a particular philosophy – a philosophy that when attempts are made to implement it, seems leads more times than not to violence and killing. But, again, your point is well taken.
    Certainly I feel the Republicans in our country are war-mongers. But then, so are the Democrats. It’s been a long time since we’ve had any true statesmen, who care to find peaceful solutions as opposed to bullying both allies and foes.

  • @davemygen

    MLK A Living Legacy