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Why the Right Should Be Reading MLK

It's noteworthy that the annual holiday set aside to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King has come this year immediately after a horrific act of violence in Arizona, and at the end of a brief and not very edifying debate over the relationship between violent political rhetoric and actual violence.

Unfortunately, most conservative activists probably aren't much in the habit of reflecting on the teachings of MLK. Some appear to think that "color-blindness" was his enduring legacy; others, that he is simply a historical figure who contributed to the dismantlement of Jim Crow, and is not terribly relevant today. I vividly recall seeing posters around Denver during the 2008 Democratic Convention (erroneously) claiming MLK as a Republican. Above all, many conservatives--along with millions of liberals, moderates, and non-political folk--probably think of MLK Day as simply an ethnic holiday for African-Americans.

You might imagine that some of MLK's writings that were addressed to the conservatives of his day--say, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, or Paul's Letter to American Christians, would be useful reading right now. But contemporary conservatives are not at all in the same psychological space as their forebears in the 1950s and 1960s, who were defensively protecting an unjust status quo on grounds that it represented a lesser of evils or a condition best left to fade away slowly. No, for the most part today's American Right is in a counterrevolutionary mood, viewing the status quo as representing the intolerable consequences of liberal policies and political victories.

But for that very reason, ironically enough, King's many injunctions to the progressives of his day to strictly eschew violence, stand for the universalist principles of America's civic and religious traditions, and seek reconciliation rather than self-righteous vengence, seem more appropriate reading material for the Right than for the Left (though the latter need constant reminders as well).

Now it's true that most conservatives have never embraced violence as a means to the changes they seek in public policies, and that many are careful to avoid demonization of opponents or appeals to "higher laws" that sometimes are used to justify violence or other extraordinary measures. While they may sincerely believe that lower taxes on "job-producers" or a scaling-back of the New Deal and Great Society safety net or war with Iran and North Korea are essential to America's future, they don't necessarily view those who disagree with them as un-American or illegitimate.

But there's simply no denying that there has been a significant rise on the Right in just the last few years in the numbers of those who may not openly advocate domestic violence, but defend the recourse to violence as a trump card in the defense of what they view as immutable principles of governance, economics and national security; that's the unavoidable meaning of talk about "second Amendment remedies" and secession, or of liberals as "a Terrorist Fifth Column" or as "looters." And that's in addition to those conservatives who believe legalized abortion is an ongoing "Holocaust" defended by the latter-day equivalents of the Nazis, or that separation of church and state represents persecution of Christians and an attack on civilization itself.

To those on the Right who are flirting with violence and hatred even if they cannot justly be accused of abetting hate crimes, a good immersion in King's writings would be a very good idea. And a good place to start might be what King had to say on the power of nonviolence:

[T]he nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.

Nonviolence doesn't always "work" to achieve immediate social or political objectives. But it does always provide a safeguard against the blindness and bitterness that hatred sows when civic conflict becomes war and opponents become enemies.