The Absurd Claim That MLK Would Be Disappointed in Black People

Fifty years after the March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated as a hero by almost all Americans. Everyone wants to be on MLK's side. Many want to imagine Dr. King would be on their side, too. And a small number want to use one of the greatest moral leaders in American history to make the case that the only problem facing black people is that they're just not moral enough. 

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Fifty years after the March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated as a hero by almost all Americans. Everyone wants to be on MLK's side. Many want to imagine Dr. King would be on their side, too. And a small number want to use one of the greatest moral leaders in American history to make the case that the only problem facing black people is that they're just not moral enough. 

On Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience, "I had a friend of mine send me some excerpts of Martin Luther King's speech 50 years ago... He said, 'You know, Rush, when I read what King said, I am reminded more of things you say than things Obama says,' which I took as a great compliment."

Limbaugh should certainly be applauded for his modesty in attributing this comparison to a friend, instead of making the claim himself. And no doubt it's a good thing that King's views are now so uncontroversial that Limbaugh would take the comparison as a compliment. However, we must point out that Limbaugh is actually not very much like King at all. Still, from listening to years of Limbaugh's radio shows, it's obvious he sees himself as a clear-sighted, morally-upright leader who's not afraid to speak the truth. It's just that the truth he wants expressed — as he has suggested in many shows — is that now it's white people who are the real victims of racial politics. And those who claim otherwise are merely "race hustlers," trying to make money off nonexistent racism while the real problem is immorality among black people.

Lots of people have used King to support one political cause or another. President Obama said King would "like" Obamacare "because I think he understood that health care, health security is not a privilege; it’s something that in a country as wealthy as ours, everybody should have access to." Slate's Matthew Yglesias notes that King supported raising the minimum wage before endorsing a guaranteed basic income. Earlier this week, at the Republican National Committee's commemoration of the march, Bob Woodson said liberals had put other issues in front of King's: "Everybody has come in front of [black people] on the bus — gays, immigrants, women, environmentalists." You might agree or disagree with their analysis. But they are in a whole different category from claiming that King's dream of racial equality is not yet possible because black people lack strong moral character.

On Wednesday, former Rep. Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican defeated in 2012, posted his own riff on King's speech, as Mother Jones's Tim Murphy reports. Walsh seems to think he's carrying King's torch forward:

I have a dream that young black men will stop shooting other young black men.

I have a dream that young black men won't become fathers until after they're married and they have a job.

I have a dream that young unmarried black women will say "no" to young black men who want to have sex.

I have a dream that today's black leadership will quit blaming racism and "the system" for what ails black America.

I have a dream that black America will take responsibility for improving their own lives.

I have a dream that one day black America will cease their dependency on the government plantation, which has enslaved them to lives of poverty, and instead depend on themselves, their families, their churches, and their communities.

As Mother Jones notes, Walsh was sued for unpaid child support in 2011. Perhaps we can see this as a great step forward. King went from being condemned as a philanderer to being used to express disgust at the state of the black American family.

These are all the issues King would care about if he were alive, Bill O'Reilly argued on Fox News this week. "If Dr. King were alive today I believe he would be broken-hearted about what has happened to the traditional family and not only among blacks, in our competitive society the ill-educated of all colors are likely to fail," O'Reilly said. He blasted today's civil rights leaders for not supporting vouchers for private schools and something called "culture reform."

Dr. Martin Luther King wanted a fair stable system for African-Americans. He did not want a culture of debasement, awful behavior from so-called entertainers and a collapsing family landscape. The civil rights industry, teachers unions, far-left media and apathetic Americans are all working together to block any kind of meaningful problem solving or cultural reform in this country and until Americans come to grips with that nothing will get better. In the end it is indeed about the content of character. When will the civil rights industry get back to that?

This is a remarkable reinterpretation of King's famous words, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." He was calling for an end to discriminatory laws so that people could succeed on their merits. O'Reilly reinterprets this to mean whatever problems black people face — a higher poverty rate, higher unemployment, higher rates of incarceration —  is not the result of discriminatory laws, but because individual black people don't have the character to try hard enough.

To point out the obvious, in 1963, there was not universal support for Martin Luther King. As NPR reported this week, by the time he spoke at the March on Washington, King's phone was being wiretapped by the FBI. The agency was unsettled by the Dream speech. In an Aug. 30, 1963 top secret memo, the FBI said of King, "We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation."

And he faced some of the same criticisms of civil rights leaders we're hearing today. When King appeared on Meet the Press a few days before the march in 1963, he was grilled by reporters. The reporters were extremely skeptical of sit-ins as rampant law-breaking. They asked if King was a communist or collectivist, whether he opposed integrating his own church. Amazingly, one reporter tried to hold King accountable for rumors of reverse racism. "Dr. King, I have been told that there are places in Harlem which refuse to serve white customers. Do you know if that’s true? If so, do you justify it as either morally or legally right?" 

On Monday, Limbaugh both held up King as a hero and a failure. "If Dr. King were alive today, what's happened to the civil rights movement would not have happened," he said. Sadly, King failed to make lasting positive change. Sure, blacks can vote, "in day-to-day, everyday life, I just don't see the vast improvement that Dr. King stood for." The only places without racial strife are those that are dominated by conservatives:

The point has been advanced here that if one leaves a blue city, then one sees less racial strife.  So if you end up -- well, pick a red state -- in any red state, you're going to see less racial strife than there was 50 years ago and certainly less than there currently is in a blue state.

So the point is being made here -- I get it now, and I don't disagree with this -- that whatever racial strife exists is due almost exclusively to liberal Democrats who profit from it.  

Obama will make himself the focus of his speech marking the march's anniversary, Limbaugh said. "Oh, you're gonna drown in it -- and if you think that there has been any progress in race relations in this country, by the time Obama finishes on Wednesday, you won't think so." Sure, Limbaugh supports racial progress. It's just that the black president is making it impossible.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.