Politics & Policy

Marching in Time

The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative: It did not seek to invent rights, but to secure ones that the government already respected in principle. “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” said Martin Luther King Jr., a “promissory note” signed in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” The speech he gave 50 years ago today is a thorough, if implicit, repudiation of all anti-Americanism.

The revolution was also a religious movement, overwhelmingly made up of Christians and Jews, unashamed to be led by a minister, willing to make an explicitly theological argument for itself: “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”

Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time. They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren’t wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context. It is a mark of the success of King’s movement that almost all Americans can now see its necessity.

Another mark is the decrepitude of today’s civil-rights movement. The evils the movement fought — state-sponsored segregation, pervasive racial discrimination — have been vanquished. In their place are evils that are, alas, less amenable to marches. And so King’s heirs flail about. Where he spoke of a “bank of justice,” they just trade in grievances. Today Al Sharpton, whose chief political success has been to foment enough racial hatred to yield arson and murder, can present himself as a civil-rights leader without much fear of contradiction. We will have to look elsewhere for answers to the evils that now afflict Americans, and especially blacks: lousy schools, a thriving drug trade and a misguided governmental response, the collapse of marriage.

On anniversaries like this one, left-wingers sometimes lament that King is not remembered in full. They say that he was hostile to capitalism and to the Vietnam War. It is a historically accurate point, and it is a historically irrelevant point. King is a national hero because of the American ideals he championed and brought much closer to realization. It is the march of those ideals that we commemorate this week.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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