Martin Luther King, Radical

Jason M. Farrell is a writer and activist based in Washington D.C. A former research fellow with the Center For Competitive Politics, he has been published in The Daily Caller, Policy Mic, and The Federalist, among other blogs and news sites.

Click around the internet today, and you’ll find no shortage of libertarians debating Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideology, as many try to claim King as their own. Absent from much of today’s discussion over beliefs will be a discussion of strategy or purpose. That burning question—how can we make change happen?—is usually answered with exhortations to call your congressman and sign petitions.

King realized over fifty years ago that begging the government for action contrary to its own interests was a futile endeavor—only radical action can inspire radical change. Libertarians should consider this may be a far more important takeaway from his legacy than the “libertarianness” of his dream.

King did not want to wait for politicians to care about change, or courts to come around and see the virtues of abandoning long-standing legal precedents. Gradual or incremental change, in point of fact, is usually no change at all. “I think the word ‘gradualism’… is so often an excuse for escapism and do-nothingism which ends up in stand-stillism,” King said in a 1957 television interview. “I think we must move on toward this great goal… we must re-examine this whole emphasis that the approach to desegregation must be gradual rather than forthwith or immediate”. No generation wants to be the one to endure a painful shake-up in the status quo, a fact Dr. King and his generation knew too well.

King, like Gandhi, believed that the morality and methodology of civil disobedience were not separate concepts, but part of a single belief system, one that he believed in the power of to change hearts and minds by social disruption. “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” King stated in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

As King notes in his famous “Letter,” when his protests started creating serious tension, white and black conservatives alike balked, imploring him to “wait” and chiding him for wanting social change to happen “too fast.” The Civil Rights radicals found themselves up against considerable resistance from the mainstream of political thought when the status quo of peace—even a peace that masks gross injustice— was threatened. Many black church leaders opposed radicalism in favor of using the court system, fearing reprisals by whites.

But King’s strategy was radicalism at its finest: shaking people out of racial apathy by exposing government evils and drawing out latent hatred within both the state and civilian population, then using non-violent resistance to foster guilt in southern whites and drum up sympathy from the rest of the country.

Civil rights groups like the Freedom Riders sought to confront racists in order to deliberately provoke violence, hoping the publicity would show that desegregationists had the moral high ground. “The Freedom Riders typified one of the standard contradictions within the civil rights movement… on the one hand it’s nonviolent… on the other hand they’re really courting violence in order to attract publicity that will forward the cause… so you have these mixed motives” said Julian Bond, former head of the NAACP.

Jesse Jackson agreed: “Every time the blood of the innocent was spilled, every time a worker was martyred, it exploded interest in our struggle.” Dr. King saw the strategy as an effective way of exposing discomfort among bigots in the South with their own attitudes…”I think it arouses a sense of shame among them in many instances… it does something to touch the conscience and establish a sense of guilt.”

Dr. King also saw the value in deliberately receiving abuse for a cause. “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive,” he exhorted his followers in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Deliberate suffering for political ends, no matter how worthy, seems a foreign concept to most people, rich and poor alike. Regardless, it was essential to the success of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is also a lesson here about overcoming the Public Choice problem; empathy can even generate enough political will to overcome self-interest on a large scale. Civil disobedience was necessary to expose both racism and perverse government interests; not only the interest of local governments to preserve their racial feudalism, but the interest of the federal government to keep things quiet and preserve the status quo, no matter how unjust.

Much of the violence against the Freedom Riders, including a firebombing of their bus and a vicious mob beating in May 1961, happened with the complicity of the local police and authorities. The FBI, under the direction of the Kennedy administration, knew of the threats to the protesters but declined to intervene. The Kennedy brothers, focused on the Soviet threat, had previously been extremely reluctant to intervene in civil rights issues and considered the protests a mere nuisance.

The outrage generated by the protests in Birmingham forced the Kennedys to proclaim to the world that they sided with civil rights against the mobs. Kennedy pushed the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate interstate bus travel shortly thereafter, and finally called on congress in 1963 to ban Jim Crow laws. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, used public sympathy generated by successful disobedience incidents such as the Children’s Crusade in May 1963 (during which fire hoses were turned on children) to pass the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964.

For decades, the Left has advanced its agenda by exploiting depressions, wars, and national tragedies, appealing to the public’s sense of empathy to advance their own brand of radicalism that redefined the role of the federal government over the last century.

Today, the Left is in the awkward position of having to preserve the status quo they’ve helped to create, including the horrific legacy of the War on Drugs. Libertarians are the new radicals, and have an opportunity to show their mettle and demand immediate, radical change, rather than patiently waiting for politicians and a disinterested public to care. This is the best way we can honor King’s legacy in a way that comports with both his dream and our own.

No, King was not a libertarian, but he was a liberator. His fight until 1965 was directed at liberation from Jim Crow Laws rather than a forced equality, which would (and later did) alienate whites when his subsequent fight turned to advocacy for taxpayer-funded reparations. The lesson was a libertarian one—only liberation from bad laws is constructive; social engineering is doomed to fail.

Dr. King’s movement is a great example of how one man’s dream overcame the Public Choice problem: government self-interest and public apathy was overcome by appealing to the heart and the moral sense of the public. This may be the most important lesson for libertarians who aim to expose injustice and redefine the role of government in private affairs. Creating real political change is not as easy or painless as you might think.

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