Letter From a Kentucky County by Jerry Salyer
After closely studying transcripts of recordings produced during the FBI's surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr., historian David Garrow pronounced a shocking judgment last year. Quoting one FBI report which stated that King “looked on, laughed and offered advice” as a woman was raped by one of King's friends, Garrow concluded that “a profoundly painful historical reckoning and reconsideration awaits” all Americans when the tapes themselves are made available in 2027. Is Garrow a closet segregationist? Hardly. A cursory inspection reveals Garrow to be a committed proponent of left-liberal egalitarian politics, as well as the winner of a 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Bearing the Cross – a decidedly positive biography of the famous civil rights leader.
Being neither a law enforcement officer nor a historian, I cannot say much about the reliability of surveillance tape transcripts, nor am I in a position to validate (or dispute) Garrow's claims. So unlike many who noisily profess to walk in Dr. King's footsteps, I stick with the principle of innocent until proven guilty, especially with #MeToo in ascendance. With respect to Dr. King there are plenty of other things to think about without laboring long over an accomplice-to-rape accusation drawn from a transcription of a recording from a secret microphone. Adultery is by itself a mortal sin, after all, and to my knowledge nobody disputes the fact that King – Baptist preacher though he was – engaged in multiple affairs with multiple women while embarked on his civil rights campaign.
From there, though, I hasten to say that even King's girlfriends need not necessarily be turned into a cause célèbre, either. Much as I can and do deplore marital infidelity, I got to know many high-energy sailors and fighter pilots while in the Navy, and as a result cannot find it in myself to be shocked when a hyperactive and assertive alpha male has trouble controlling his appetites in his off-hours. Nor, for that matter, am I inclined to retroactively align King 100% with the pro-abortion lobby, because on such a grave matter it seems to me that we should give a man the benefit of the doubt. We cannot know for sure what his reaction to Roe v. Wade would have been had he lived to see it, even if he did accept the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood in 1966.
Come to think of it, there is at least one point in King's acceptance speech at which the most reactionary cultural conservative can cheer, as King emphatically stated that he and his followers “do not welcome any solution which involves population breeding as a weapon.” In sharp contrast to editorials which gleefully celebrate the “browning” of America, King disclaimed any wish to wash away America's Anglo-European identity in a demographic flood:
Some commentators point out that with present birth rates it will not be long before Negroes are a majority in many of the major cities of the nation. As a consequence, they can be expected to take political control, and many people are apprehensive at this prospect. Negroes do not seek political control by this means. They seek only what they are entitled to and do not wish for domination purchased at the cost of human misery.
All that is to say that what is fundamentally objectionable is not the man himself, who had his virtues and insights as well as vices, just like the rest of us; what is objectionable is the militant, uncritical cult which has grown up around his memory; what is downright contemptible are the slavish gestures made by various "Christian conservative" pundits seeking to hitch their wagons to said cult. See, for instance, certain Baptist and Catholic NeverTrumpers, who only pause from swooning like schoolgirls for King long enough to turn around and damn those Christians who supposedly compromised their faith by voting for the lecher in the White House. No, Trump is no model of chastity – but then again, neither is the revered Reverend King. Since when is a politician who builds casinos and runs beauty pageants held to a higher moral standard than that expected of a minister of the Gospel?
Likewise surreal is the incessant invocation of Dr. King by the Right-to-Life movement, the celebrity leaders of which never stop trying to equate efforts to ban abortion with the desegregation campaign. Forget that it is an understatement to say that Roe v. Wade was hardly a victory for the Southern doctrine of states' rights. Forget too that many of the same Right-to-Life icons who play at being edgy civil rights radicals were too craven to defend the Covington Catholic students from Facebook lynch mobs, and would probably need smelling salts – if not a change of underwear – were they ever to find themselves linked by a hostile media to any genuine act of civil disobedience. No, let us turn again to the Planned Parenthood speech, wherein King noted "a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts," and claimed that through her own acts of civil disobedience "Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity," and therefore "we honor her courage and vision."
Whatever he may have thought of abortion, King had an indisputable affinity for those environmentalists who see birth control as a key tool in the effort to save the planet from overpopulation. According to King, any extraterrestrial explorer coming to Earth "would observe that we spend paltry sums for population planning, even though its spontaneous growth is an urgent threat to life on our planet. Our visitors from outer space could be forgiven if they reported home that our planet is inhabited by a race of insane men whose future is bleak and uncertain." Moreover, given that his own wife Coretta Scott King was unambiguously in favor of abortion, it seems doubtful that any sentiments against the practice her husband may have had were fervent. The point is not that he can be shown to have been “pro-choice,” but that it is absurd to try to claim him as straightforwardly “pro-life” – whatever his niece may say.
If we want to consider King's legacy and its meaning for the world we live in today, we are obliged to look directly at the man's most cherished utterances, and few pieces from Dr. King's corpus are more hallowed than “The Letter From A Birmingham Jail.” It is in this sacred scripture of Americanism that we find the key to understanding the 21st- Century West. Retorting to complaints about his incendiary insertion of himself and his disciples into other people's communities, King explained his actions thus:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
So those who believe in limits, subsidiarity, and human-scaled order can bracket the tricky, often hazy questions about King's personal character, along with questions about how the man would have reacted to controversies which only emerged after his death. Without question, we can grant Dr. King's status as one of history's great figures, and we can certainly respect the American black's desire for a hero embodying a historical experience fraught with suffering and hardship – and courage.
At the same time, it would be difficult to exaggerate how unwholesome are the preceding sentiments from “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” representing as they do a perverted half-truth, and unmoderated as they are by any recognition that the “narrow, provincial” mindset might just have its merits too. Whatever the man himself intended in the long term, and regardless of whatever good he sought, or whatever particular evils he may have corrected, King's remarks represent a blank check to be cashed in later by ideology-drunk fanatics bent upon the utter eradication of community as such. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds epitomizes the leveling ethos of nationalism at its worst, and justifies Richard Spencer's meddling in Charlottesville no less than King's crusade. As for high-sounding phrases like injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, they could just as easily be drawn from one of George W. Bush's idiotic and immoral speeches about the invasion of Iraq.
Humility would counsel us to first get to know someone else's neighborhood intimately before going in to turn it upside down and inside out; instead of humility, American journalists and professors and senators alike embrace the self-righteous, self-assured, and aggressive spirit of revolutionary activism, which would leave no space private, no relationship personal, and no community local. If ideas have consequences, then King's indifference to subsidiarity and undisguised contempt for "the narrow, provincial" dimension of American life validates the ongoing destruction of small towns. “Crunchy-cons” can wail all they like about the replacement of the United States by a mass-regime, an ant-hive, a centralized and standardized Unitary State swollen beyond any human scale of experience – they are right to complain, but until they summon the nerve to confront the less creditable side of King's legacy, they may as well save their breath. As a man, King may have been admirable in many respects. As a deified political messiah, looming over America as a supposedly infallible colossus, he represents a clear and present danger to human dignity. When everybody is equally responsible for justice everywhere, no one is responsible at all.