Thank You, Dr. King
by Ari Armstrong, January 15, 2001
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left us a legacy of hope -- hope for universal civil rights, hope for completed justice.
Though he wouldn't have thought of himself as a libertarian (especially since that term wasn't yet in circulation), Dr. King is the quintessential libertarian. Dr. King came to his leadership role largely through the cause to repeal discriminatory laws, such as the law which forced black people to give up their bus seats to white people. In large part, the libertarian project consists of repealing bad laws, laws that advantage some at the expense of others.
Dr. King shares with libertarians a profound respect for the principles of individual rights upon which our nation was founded. Like modern libertarians, Dr. King wanted to see the fulfillment of those principles beyond what had ever been achieved historically. In his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. King said
we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
While libertarians share with signers of the Declaration of Independence a belief in the ultimate "Right of the People to alter or to abolish" a tyrannical government, by force if necessary, libertarians are committed to nonviolent social change so long as our rights of speech and assembly remain basically intact. Dr. King shared this view:
Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.
Dr. King saw racism with clear eyes. He was not paranoid, he did not seek out racism where none exists, or use race as a political trump card, or point accusatory fingers toward honest whites. He argued,
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
To take a modern example, I believe that racial profiling exists. I believe it exists because I've seen police search the vehicle of an Hispanic man for no apparent reason (http://www.freecolorado.com/cfrmarch1999/noprobablecause.html). I've seen a state patrol officer search the car of a black person on the side of the road, though I have never seen the state patrol search the car of a white person. A recent survey conducted by the Colorado Progressive Coalition suggests the majority of inner-city Denver residents believe they have been the victim of racial profiling. I believe the bill introduced by Senator Tate to address the problems of racial profiling is worth passing. At the same time, I do not believe that the majority of police officers are racists.
Among the general population, I know racism still exists, because I've heard racist comments. (I also heard overtly racist comments by two black commentators on the streets of New York.) Fortunately, nearly all white people I know are openly accepting of people of other races and ethnicities.
Opposition to affirmative action does not make one a racist. I personally favor some forms of affirmative action (such as by private schools), and oppose other forms. I don't think affirmative action does much to help blacks; mostly I think it's a way for Democrats and Republicans to polarize the American people and distract them from the real issues.
Dr. King wisely sought out the best in both whites and blacks. Indeed, Dr. King envisioned a color-blind society in which both would grow beyond the evils of racism.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
In Dr. King's day, a major problem was the system of overtly racist laws, laws which forcibly segregated whites and blacks, laws which prevented blacks from enjoying free trade. Today, libertarians argue that some laws inadvertently hurt black communities. Laws which extract high taxes and impose high regulatory burdens make it harder for blacks to find opportunity and live the American dream. Drug prohibition laws have turned some black communities into war zones. Welfare laws have discouraged some young black mothers from staying married. Libertarians believe voluntary charity projects in conjunction with rolling back destructive laws has the best chance of helping those blacks and whites who remain stuck in poverty and despair.>
Writing for the Chicago Tribute, Clarence Page advocates ideals which can rightly be counted as libertarian. (His column was published January 14 in the Rocky Mountain News.) He says "we have to invest in our kids." But Page doesn't mean elitists in Washington, D.C. should be responsible for administering these investments. Instead, Page advocates personal responsibility: "If you don't have a kid of your own, help mentor somebody else's. There are plenty of needy kids to go around." Thus, instead of calling for increased political control, Page calls for more personal, voluntary action. Page adds that "we must stress to our children that excellence not only is achievable, but essential." Somehow, I think Dr. King is smiling down upon Clarence Page today.
Incidentally, Page cites a study which suggests many black people agree with my assessment that racism, while a continuing problem, is not nearly as widespread as it once was. Page notes,
When black Americans were asked... what today's most important issue is, education ranked ahead of everything else. The poll by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that education (26 percent) came in way ahead of health care (18 percent), crime (16 percent) and the economy (14 percent). "Race relations and racism" received only 2 percent.
For the writers of the Declaration of Independence, freedom meant shedding the yokes placed on us by other people. Freedom from force and the threat of force. Freedom to engage in peaceful transactions with others. Freedom from unjust rulers. That's basically the concept of freedom that Dr. King promoted. It's the concept of freedom that libertarians advocate today.
It is with particular pride as editor of the Colorado Freedom Report that I note Dr. King began his cry for freedom starting with our state. Thank you, Dr. King, and let us hope we can bring your legacy to fulfillment:
Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!...