Martin Luther King's legacy, not unlike America's Founding Fathers, is one of Enlightenment values. And a look at conservatives' reaction to King, then and now, highlights an ugly historical thread that continues to define the American right: totalitarian leanings ("so long as I'm the dictator"), self-anointment as America's rightful ruling class, and of course racism.
Rick Perlstein does an excellent job of highlighting the right wing's attempt to hijack his legacy, having failed to demolish it.
Richard Nixon called King "a great leader--a man determined that the American Negro should win his rightful place alongside all others in our nation." Even one of King's most beastly political enemies, Mississippi Representative William Colmer, chairman of the House rules committee, honored the president's call to unity by terming the murder "a dastardly act."
Others demurred. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond wrote his constituents, "[W]e are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case." Another, even more prominent conservative said it was just the sort of "great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they'd break."
That was Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, arguing that King had it coming. (. . .)
The conservative argument, consistent and ubiquitous, was that King, claiming the mantle of moral transcendence, was actually the vector for moral relativism. They made it by reducing the greatest moral epic of the age to a churlish exercise in bean-counting. Shortly after the 1965 Selma voting-rights demonstrations, Klansmen shot dead one of the marchers, a Detroit housewife named Viola Liuzza, for the sin of riding in a car with a black man. Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended her funeral. No fair! Buckley cried, noting that a white cop had been shot by a black man in Hattiesburg shortly thereafter; "Humphrey did not appear at his funeral or even offer condolences." He complained, too, of the news coverage: "The television cameras showed police nightsticks descending upon the bodies of the demonstrators, but they did not show the defiance ... of those who provoked them beyond the endurance that we tend to think of as human." (In actual fact, sheriff's officers charged into the crowd on horseback swinging rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire.)
As you might suspect, today's conservatives argue the opposite-- that King was a lonely voice crying out against moral relativism, and therefore one of them. A must-read on many levels. Even the citation of William F. Buckley whining about media bias is the template for the right's arguments about Iraq today-- a classic example of the moral bankruptcy that defines the movement and the disavowal of personal responsibility that defines this administration.