I do not think that Martin Luther King Jr. was a libertarian, and there are many who disagree with me. He believed that while the government was systematically segregating and oppressing black Americans, the government would be the best solution to this problem. However, within the libertarian community, he is lauded as one of our heros, as a man of civil change and effective disobedience. Is that label fair if he himself did not view himself as a libertarian? We have done the same with Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mary Wollstonecraft. What should we do with these figures who strove for equal opportunity, but may not have been libertarians themselves?
While all four of these historical figures were inspired to pursue the ideal of freedom, it is unfair to unduly attach a label to them that they did not consent to. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., it would be the equivalent of calling Ron Paul a Democrat because he believes in ending the War on Drugs or defends habeas corpus. When libertarians label historical figures, we are not looking at their whole person. This is problematic because the libertarian label gets skewed when applied ineffectively (see our recent articles on Glenn Beck).
Don’t know what I’m talking about? Let’s have a closer look at MLK, a man who has almost turned into a caricature of his I Have A Dream speech.
MLK Was Most Likely A Socialist
Does this quote sound familiar?
You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.
Raising your eyebrows yet? This was one of Martin Luther King’s speeches to his staff in 1966. The truth is, MLK believed in wealth redistribution to right the wrongs of history; he believed that black Americans should have special privileges given their history of oppression. For example, he said,
“No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries…Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages.”
He goes on to say,
“The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.”
In all reality MLK was a state-organized collectivist. While he fought for social freedoms, he advocated for government redistribution. Martin Luther King Jr. was an enemy of the free market.
What has happened is that Americans—not just libertarians—have taken the I Have A Dream speech and used it to personify the entirety of Martin Luther King Jr. This disregards so many of his individual beliefs that it does a diservice to who he was as a whole.
Libertarians need to stop pick and choosing the qualities of American heroes to falsely add them to our movement. MLK made phenomenal strides in advocating for social change, but he was far from being a libertarian. Unless he, at any point, applied that label to himself, we should refrain from doing so. Let him stand for what he chose to stand for. There are enough people attempting to use his name to further their cause. Libertarians should be better than that.