What activists today can learn from MLK, the ‘conservative militant’

In the turbulent days following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, activists launched resistance movements: Greenpeace activists climbed a large construction crane near the White House and unfurled a large banner with the single word – “Resist.”

Similar protests took place elsewhere. Thousands of protesters used their bodies to spell the word “resist” on a San Francisco beach. And at the Grammy’s, the very next day, rapper Q-Tip yelled “resist” no less than four times from the stage.

A year later, demonstrations like these have not disappeared. A second women’s march is planned for later this month. But the resistance has moved beyond street protests. Activists are now embracing the hard work of political organizing. “Don’t Just March Run for Something” – the title of a best-seller by Amanda Litman, email director of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, crystallizes this transition.

I have studied the words and actions of Martin Luther King Jr. for decades. The very change we are witnessing now – the transition from protest to politics – is exactly the kind of transition that King called for during the civil rights movement.

MLK: A ‘conservative militant’

In the words of historian August Meier, who wrote a seminal book, “Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915,” published in 1963, King succeeded because he was “a conservative militant.”

The word, “conservative” has a specific meaning here. King was a democratic socialist, he opposed the Vietnam War, and he called for massive investment in the inner cities. He was not conservative in any political sense. But what Meier showed was that King nevertheless manifested a conservative core – one that resonated with millions of Americans and thereby helped achieve the movement’s remarkable success.

Martin Luther King Jr. with other civil rights leaders during the civil rights March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. Library of Congress/Handout via Reuters
In Meier’s words:

“American history shows that for any reform movement to succeed, it must attain respectability. It must attract moderates, even conservatives to its rank.”

King understood this. And to that end, he was indeed conservative – both in the arguments he made and the manner in which he presented them.

King argued that racism in America meant the United States was not living up to its own ideals. At the very core of the Declaration of Independence and thus at the center of American life was the belief that “all men are created equal.” But in America in the 1960s, and especially in the South, African-Americans lived out their lives as second-class citizens. In King’s words, American culture was “the very antithesis” of what it claimed to believe.

King did not want to challenge, let alone replace, ideals of freedom and equality. He wanted America to better embody them. He argued that the civil rights movement was just the latest in a long American tradition that was both grounded in those ideals and sought to make them more authentic.

King compared the civil rights movement with the abolitionist movement, the populist movement of farmers and laborers in the late 19th century, and even to the American Revolution itself. The American ideal “all men are created equal” constituted what King called a “promissory note.” In each case, ordinary citizens demanded that that promise be honored. And through their actions, the nation was made more free and more just.

By framing the cause of civil rights in words and ideas that most Americans strongly identified with, King was able to appeal to their innate patriotism. What’s more, those who stood against his cause were, by implication, the ones who could be seen as un-American.

King’s strategy

King’s resistance was also strictly nonviolent. Following the model of civil resistance developed by M.K. Gandhi, the leader of Indian independence, King argued for nonviolence within the terms of his own Christian faith.

King said that by responding to injustice with civility and to violence with nonviolence, the resister was fulfilling “the Christian doctrine of love.” For King, that love was best reflected in the Greek word “agape,” an “understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” This was the love that Christ epitomized, and which his followers were called to emulate.

But King also insisted that nonviolent resistance spoke to a respect for the law that can only be called conservative. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he was imprisoned in 1963, King insisted that while unjust laws must be broken, they must be broken “lovingly,” such that the act demonstrates a respect, even a reverence, for the law.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. AP Photo
King argued that this nonviolent strategy was not simply the most Christian response. It was also “the most potent instrument the Negro community can use to gain total emancipation in America.” He said that violent protests gave the white man “an excuse to look away,” to ignore those who want to claim the mantel of equality.“