Neither side of the culture war can claim Martin Luther King as their own

Marc Glendening

January 16, 2023

Today is Martin Luther King day in America. There is a fascinating debate raging there between those who see him as someone who advanced a liberal understanding of that society’s deep-seated problems concerning race relations and those who argue that this is an ideological misappropriation. Their argument being that his analysis went beyond an individualistic, liberal solution to social justice and was instead, in reality, consistent with Critical Race Theory (CRT).

The aim of the contemporary Culture Control Left (CCL) is to claim Dr. King saw, as they do, racial inequality as ‘structural’, baked in to the very fabric of American and wider Western society. The CCL stand explicitly against the goal of a colour-blind society – the idea most commonly associated with King – because this precludes the objective of a radical, political transformation of society.

For example, the Green-Labour coalition administration in Brighton last year imposed a ‘Racial Literacy 101’, CRT-based, programme of sessions on teachers in the city. This was designed to give them ‘the line’ on what they should and not teach their pupils. One of the edicts was that they should under no circumstances tell pupils that ‘race doesn’t mean anything and everyone can work hard and be successful’.

Therefore, the individual must cease to be the basic unit of analysis and recipient of rights. This is why Black Lives Matter and some of their fellow travellers on the left now argue for ‘reparations’ from white people to people of colour or from Western countries to their former colonies.

Transposing King’s statements and thinking to the current day is of huge symbolic significance given his saint-like status for the vast majority of people. This is why the vast majority of CRT advocates and fellow travellers in mainstream politics, bureaucracy and big business, want to claim King as a forerunner for the type of discriminatory, anti-individualist interventions they want to impose upon us today.

Likewise, the centre-right in America have sought to evoke King as a proponent of the liberal approach to race relations. It was Republican president Ronald Reagan who signed Martin Luther Day into law in 1986. More recently, the same party’s leader in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, has said: ‘Critical Race Theory goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us, don’t judge us by the color (sic) of our skin, and now [the Left] are embracing it.’ Bernice King has weighed into the dispute by arguing in a spat with a Republican Senate candidate, that her father ‘was not a drum major for a colour blind society but for justice.’

Near to the time of his assassination in 1968 King did indeed seem to go beyond the position that many conservatives have come to attribute to him. Speaking to NBC news in 1967, he said that ‘the dream that I had [as articulated in his 1963 I have a dream speech] has at many points turned into a nightmare.’

In the book published in the year before before his murder, Where Do We Go From Here?, he wrote: ‘It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment. I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits.’

This statement, then, directly contradicts the quote for which he is most famous, concerning his wish for there to be a time when his grandchildren would be judged and treated purely as individuals, not according to skin colour. There does then appear to have been a qualitative change in Dr King’s thinking over the three or four year period commencing with the March on Washington address. While he clearly abandoned his liberal approach, in tone at least he remained conciliatory, civilised, and peaceful. This is a far cry from the sour, vindictive tone of many who advocate CRT today and are prominent within the hierarchies of the Black Lives Matter movement in both America and the UK.

It is inconceivable that he would have joined them in demanding the abolition of liberal democracy or the removal of statues without proper democratic consultation and debate. Nor would King have been in favour of the suppression of freedom of speech around the issues of race, something demanded by many on the CCL.

Martin Luther King should be remembered in a balanced way. First and foremost he articulated in his Washington speech one of the greatest and most important statements of liberal principle ever given. His later pronouncements should be viewed as self-evidently incompatible with the vision he so brilliantly described, that of a colour-blind society.

In the last part of his life King seems to have wanted to address clear historic injustices visited upon African Americans by, in turn, sanctioning discriminatory measures against pale skinned people in certain circumstances. This meant holding some individuals responsible for the crimes committed by others, probably long since dead, simply because they shared the same broad ethnic origins and colour of skin. Racial discrimination, in whatever guise and whatever the motivation, is still racial discrimination and therefore irrational and wrong.

This departure from liberalism on King’s part is not only to be regretted in terms of abstract ethical principle but because the pursuit of race or religious based identity politics can only lead to disaster as numerous historical examples demonstrate.

If some groups are to be awarded state-enforced advantages over others then those expected to sacrifice money, employment prospects and speaking rights will understandably counter-mobilise. The CRT approach politically weaponises race relations and this only serves to put off the day when we no more attach significance to the ethnic backgrounds of other individuals than the colour of their eyes or shoe size.


Written by Marc Glendening

Marc Glendening is Head of Cultural Affairs at the Institute of Economic Affairs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Capitalism and freedom are under attack. If you support 1828’s work, help us champion freedom by donating here.

Keep Reading



Sign up today to receive exclusive insights