Monday, January 18, 2016

Why Our Tea Party Movement Should Honor MLK

By Michael Johns

In the early 1980s, as my interest in politics and my now three-decade alignment with American conservatism first began, I distinctly remember one of that time’s prominent public debates: Should a federal holiday be developed and named for American civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Like now, issues then often became quickly contentious and polarizing.  Conservatives and liberals saw the world and nation ultimately in very different ways and each held their views with self-righteous adamancy. So it was, at least initially, with the King debate.

Newly elected conservative President Ronald Reagan initially opposed the holiday, not on the basis that King did not hold a special place in United States history but that the cost of a federal holiday in his name would prove prohibitively costly to the nation. But the real opposition, espoused by then U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and others, cut more to the definition of King as a person. In 1983, when legislation that would have authorized the holiday reached the floor of the U.S. Senate, Helms argued that King held views that he then labeled “action-oriented Marxism.”

Nonetheless, it was Reagan who, in November 1983, ultimately signed a bill creating the day as a federal holiday. “Let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day,” Reagan said on November 2, 1983 following his signing the bill creating the holiday.

Placed in comparative context, it’s an extraordinary recognition.

Other than King, George Washington is the only person who has a U.S. federal holiday named in their honor.  While we honor Christopher Columbus with a federal holiday the second Monday of every October, several states (Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon and South Dakota) refuse to commemorate it.  There is no federal holiday for Thomas Jefferson, who authored our Declaration of Independence and helped lead our nation’s independence, nor Lewis and Clark, who spearheaded the first American expedition of the American West, or Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the nation amidst civil war and effectively abolished slavery, nor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who guided the U.S. to victory in World War II and ushered the nation through the Great Depression, nor Reagan himself, who most have come to conclude brought an end to the Cold War without firing a shot.

Yet, just as Reagan ultimately came to support and sign legislation supporting the King holiday, the Tea Party movement today has good reason to recognize this great man’s leadership and the holiday named in his honor for at least four significant reasons:

1.)    King’s vision was to end racial identity: While the civil rights issues of the time required King to appropriately lead the crusade for equal representation of African-Americans, close scrutiny of his words and actions reveal his underlying message was that race should never be used to separate Americans.  Despite a modern Democrat party that bases almost its entire political strategy on selfishly dividing the American people by race, religion, gender and sexuality and a liberal political culture that still champions affirmative action on many levels, King never sought special privilege for African-Americans or any race. As King famously said in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, “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.” Were he alive today, King almost certainly would reject the tactics and messages of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and others who wrongly represent that they are carrying on King’s message and activism.

2.)    King believed that people, even more than laws, defined our nation: While much of the civil rights debate at the time understandably centered around what were and were not federal governmental responsibilities and how to protect the civil liberties of all in rule of law, King equally believed that the character of the American people were just as influential and impactful. King was a devout Christian who was on record at the time advocating many of the traditional values the conservative and Tea Party movements support today. He supported the traditional family and vehemently opposed abortion and saw both positions as vital to the social fabric of African-Americans and the nation as a whole.

3.)    King championed fiscal and personal responsibility: Just as it is seldom recognized today that King almost certainly would have been a vehement opponent of the abortion industry and culture that has developed in our nation, so too are we rarely told that King was a significant champion of personal responsibility. In the last book he authored before his death, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community, King praised hard work, thrift and self-reliance. Were he alive today, he likely would see merit in many of the same messages our Tea Party is advocating and communicating about the limits of government’s responsibilities and the self-destructive nature of its punitive policies toward industriousness and productivity.

4.)    Like the Tea Party today, King was targeted by government for peacefully challenging unjust policies: Just as the Internal Revenue Service (almost certainly at the direction of the Obama White House) has illegally monitored and targeted our Tea Party movement because it feels threatened that our common sense message may inhibit their ability to control and mislead the American people, King too was targeted for his peaceful opposition to the country’s then unjust laws. As the Obama administration fears the Tea Party movement’s peaceful organization and message, the Kennedy and Johnson administration feared King. Then Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover famously kept King under surveillance and maintained an active FBI file on the civil rights leader. 

As we close the 30th consecutive Martin Luther King holiday today, the trepidation to embrace King among many conservatives and Tea Party members, I believe, is not rooted in any lack of recognition for the bravery and ultimate success of his constructive efforts, but that his period of U.S. history is used so frequently by American liberals to challenge our contention that our nation is both exceptional, unique and divinely guided. But how can that be, liberals like to ask, when our government, a mere few decades ago, denied basic civil rights to both African-Americans and women?

The answer is this: Unlike totalitarian nations that crush human and civil rights crusaders who threaten their power structure, or European nations that continue to inhibit individual rights and organize their societies predominantly on familial, hierarchical societal structures, our nation has been one of ongoing progress led by individual and collective crusades to improve our nation and expand liberty with each consecutive generation, to make it more just and successful and to enhance individual opportunity for all Americans.  American exceptionalism lies not just in our nation's unequaled and exceptional founding on a set of extraordinary ideas and ideals, but in our continued commitment to perfecting and promulgating these principles in each subsequent generation.

The Tea Party movement most certainly carries on in this great tradition, just as King did with his civil rights leadership that we properly commemorate today.

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