Racial Equality: Martin Luther King’s failed dream


WASHINGTON, December 5, 2014 — It was a “dream” that many well-intentioned people had. It was a pledge that they solemnly made, perhaps really believing that they could accomplish what they promised. For many of the post-World War II generation creating a society based on the supreme principle of equality and opening doors that they believed had been hitherto closed to American blacks became a quasi-religious calling.

Perhaps in an age which some historians called “post-Christian,” this new millenialist quest helped to fill the void in the lives of so many who now scorned and ignored the doctrines of the past. Those traditional beliefs cautioned us soberly that earthly equality was not realizable, that attempts to create such a paradisiacal society would end inevitably in disaster and worse.

We have had centuries of history and numerous striking historical examples of efforts that proposed to do just that. But each of those movements, whether the fanatical Puritans and extreme Anabaptists of the Reformation, the zealous French Revolutionaries of the late 18th century, the Marxist visionaries (and their modern-day Trotskyite progeny), or the various modern Christian liberal heresies that posit salvation through the creation of a terrestrial heaven (e.g., liberation theology, “base communities”), only produced frustration, extreme violence, and a reliance on secular ideologies which are much worse and more tyrannical than any traditional doctrine ever was.

Today it is considered beyond the pale, an act of racial heresy, to question the prophetic role of Martin Luther King. It was King who, for a generation, announced the coming of a new American “dream” of full equality. It was King who captured the imagination of the post-war generation. Abetted by court decisions that overturned settled law and championed by both Democrat and Republican presidents, the civil rights revolution gained momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The few voices that questioned the goals proposed or methods employed were written off as racist or bigoted. Initial conservative opposition manifested in the old National Review or in more scholarly journals such as Modern Age, was soon swept aside.

By the 1980s the spokesmen for an older traditional conservatism, who had been generally critical of egalitarianism, were supplanted by new writers, the Neoconservatives, whose intellectual heritage and belief in fundamental equality paralleled the views of their opponents on the Left. They proceeded to “purge” conservatism of anything and anyone who dissented from their belief in liberal democracy and egalitarianism. Thus, Southern conservatives (superb scholars such as the late Professor Mel Bradford and Clyde Wilson), libertarian conservatives (such as Murray Rothbard), America First anti-interventionist conservatives (like Patrick Buchanan), and paleo- or traditional conservatives (such as Paul Gottfried, Thomas Fleming and Chronicles magazine), were generally read out of the so-called “conservative mainstream.”

With the triumph of Neoconservativism as the new leadership nomenklatura on the Right and in the GOP, parameters of debate about major issues were severely narrowed. Certain topics were declared off limits.  Across the spectrum, from the Leftist intelligentsia and media conglomerates to the glib “talking heads” on Fox News and intellectual pygmies at The Weekly Standard, there was general agreement that equality was the foundational principle for America. The Declaration of Independence became the “founding document” of the republic, supplanting even the Constitution in the public mind, with new and spurious interpretations of what its authors meant when they used the word “equality.” And Abraham Lincoln, who on occasion suggested sending American blacks back to Africa, became in fact the new Founder of a new republic.

This time, we were told, the egalitarian crusade would be successful. This time the promises of earthly equality and the creation of an egalitarian society would be fulfilled. Indeed, Lyndon Johnson committed billions and billions of taxpayer dollars to construct such a society. And he was only the first in a long list of wily politicians and demagogues who continued and stepped up these efforts: trillions of dollars, new and intrusive laws, affirmative action programs, overextended Federal action to correct perceived disparities, and so on, all the while ignoring very troubling indications that the multiplicity of programs were not having the intended effects and that things were actually getting worse. And around the dinner table and at workplace water fountains it was whispered in hushed tones that maybe the precious “dream” was not realizable.

For the few courageous critics who saw dangers in these chiliastic efforts, the response was to discredit them or silence their criticism (for example, The Bell Curve). In most cases, such observations were ignored or scornfully rejected by a political and media class imbued with and dedicated to the “dream” and the implementation of full egalitarianism.

For writers like the late Dr. Samuel Francis, there was both considerable danger and irony in the civil rights revolution.

Not only were the goals unobtainable, but the efforts to reach them had created a new statist managerial class empowered to enforce “civil rights equality,” whatever that meant.  For Francis, voicing such views, even in the pages of the ostensibly conservative Washington Time, would get him fired and banned from writing in many supposed “conservative” publications. One could not question the suppositions and postulates of the “dream.” The late Russell Kirk, for whom I served as assistant in the 1970s, once commented to me that we were living in a revolutionary society, a kind of Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the myth that “all animals are equal” was propagated, but the actual reality was “some must be more equal than others.”

The grand jury decisions in Ferguson and on Staten Island starkly reveal the bankruptcy of the “dream.” The issue is not police brutality, nor is it supposed white racism and the so-called “historic oppression” of American blacks by a white power structure. The issue is, rather, pent up frustrations that have burst forth after fifty years of unrealizable promises that equality and utopia for blacks were just around the corner.

Recall the lady interviewed when Obama came out like Moses to address the crowds after the presidential election in late 2008: “He’s gonna pay for my mortgage!” Or, the lady who exclaimed that she would be getting “an Obama phone.” The past six years have seen a strained extension of the wobbly myth of equality, the dream that we were told must be accomplished, no matter what. In late 2014 it is evident that the millenialist dream of King and others, the promise of terrestrial paradise and across the board equality, has failed because it never could succeed. The fact is that, if anything, we are worse off now than before. The reactions in Ferguson and New York and elsewhere are an implicit recognition that all the rhetoric, all the trillions, all the Federal and state programs, all the slobbering media attention, all the affirmative action and endless coddling—all of it, has in reality failed. The rage of minorities is actually a bitter and implicit recognition of their own incapacity and that the laws of nature and cognitive disparity always eventually emerge, despite the best intentions and efforts to change them or disguise them.

Honesty and frank discussion are in very short supply in today’s America, but that is precisely what is needed. Such a conversation would be extremely painful, potentially leading to widespread violence and the collapse of what is left of the American nation. But such conversation will probably never occur. No one wants to hear it, certainly not our supine political class. So we shall very likely continue to spiral out of control, with our leaders increasingly hysterical in their pleas for equality and “justice,” while stark reality continues to manifest itself in the streets where the law of the jungle asserts itself.

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Boyd Cathey
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.
  • Lee Christmas

    The ideology of liberalism includes the rather odd notion that one is right, simply because one claims to be.