Why Libertarians Should Stop Calling Martin Luther King Jr. A Libertarian


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.

  • Brava! And everyone should stop calling him “Dr. Martin Luther King”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._authorship_issues

    • Boston University has not rescinded his doctorate. Doctorates are given by a university, not elected by the public. Until they retract his doctorate, he’s properly referred to as Dr. King.

      • Yes but the reason they didn’t revoke his Ph.D. was basically because they didn’t want to be the people who revoke MLK’s Ph.D. Who can blame them?

  • I’ve always really struggled with my thoughts on MLK… He was a plagiarizing, adulterous man who we’ve raised to the level of demi-god. Yes, he said a lot of great things, and stood strong for a good cause, but in many ways his actions undermined his rhetoric.

    • I dunno, dude. I think it’s unfair for everyone to focus on these things that Dr. King did that aren’t directly relavant to his rights work. We are perhaps racist in our fixation with the “bad” things he did. As if we can’t accept a black person as an important historical figure or as crucial to our development as a people and a country without also saying “yeah, he was a dick.”

      George Washington was a dick. John F. Kennedy was a dick. Abraham Lincoln was a dick. Either we lambast them all, or we let them all have their places in history for the things they did right. We can’t and shouldn’t pick and choose.

      • Yes, but there are far better civil rights people than MLK. Why praise MLK this much when there are better civil rights people? Obviously, the bad stuff that MLK did doesn’t diminish the effects of the good stuff he did. But it certainly diminishes his character. When people say things like “We should all be like MLK” what do they mean? Or when they say “MLK was a good role model” what do they mean? Do they mean we should look at the fictional white washed version that is created out of some excerpts of a few speeches? And if so, why does he get a pass on the bad stuff?

        Also, I agree that there is an apparent imbalance in how we judge MLK and how we judge, say Geo. Washington (and the founders in general). We never say “Washington was a good guy, except for the whole slavery thing.” And this isn’t mentioned much. But I don’t think the reason is race. I think it has more to do with the fact that we all accept the unfortunate fact that many of the founders were slave holders, and while they might have done good things in other areas of their lives, we recognise there is this huge blemish on all of their records. This is known to just about everyone. However, MLK is raised to a level of a demi-God as if he didn’t have the major blemishes that he does. And, in fact, many of the perceptions of him are the exact opposite of the truth. For example, how many times have I heard Hannity say things like “MLK wasn’t in favour of affirmative action. Just listen to the I Have a Dream Speech.”

  • fcmoulton

    First let us consider the issue of applying the label libertarian to a public figure who did not self apply that label. This is somewhat difficult for many historical examples since the term was not in common usage even when Dr. King was alive. This is a more complex issue than can be answered in a comment but it is well worth future consideration. But just because Dr. King did not use a label which was not in common usage at that time does not help use answer the question one way or the other.

    As for Dr. King’s views on economics and politics it is well worth remembering the context in which he grew up and the situation he found when he began his public career. The USA at that time was not some long last idyllic era of free market bliss; some of the economy was already in a re-distributive mode it just was not called that. Massive amounts of tax money was going into the pockets of the corporations to supply materials for the Vietnam War. Dr. King was at least honest in what he said as contrasted with those who wanted socialized profits for the companies supplying the war but did not want to be honest about the nature of the activity. And in the context of government supplied road paving and schools is it any surprise that Dr. King speaks out saying why do the good roads and good schools tend to be in white neighborhoods? If the situation at the time was a sort of socialism to benefit whites then why is anyone surprised when Dr. King makes the same requests for blacks. And on the issue of reparations it should be pointed out historically it was not uncommon is some areas that young black men were arrested on trumped up charges and sentenced to work in chain gangs. And let us not forget that the draft was sending young black men to Vietnam. Clearly unjustly putting someone on a chain gang or drafting them to fight in Vietnam is stealing of their labor and in some cases their life. So Dr. King has a strong case advocating reparations for those and other misdeeds.

    For those who raise the issue of adultery I would argue that it is not relevant to this discussion unless someone wants to make a convincing argument that an individual’s marital conduct is somehow a critical factor in determining a political description. If someone really wants to push that argument in the case of Dr. King then perhaps they would like to do a warmup by applying their rhetorical skills to considering a certain former Congress member and POTUS candidate who had a newsletter with racist content going out under his name.

  • mikegiberson

    Who calls MLK a libertarian? The one link leads to an article at Reason that honors King’s passion for justice, but also notes his several shortcomings from a libertarian viewpoint. At no point does the article call MLK a libertarian.

    Nothing wrong with celebrating what MLK got right even as we criticize what he gets wrong.

  • Yeah, another guy out for “his own people”, looking to use the government to trade one groups freedom for anothers.
    Anarcho Capitalism

    • You know who that reminds me of? White people in the 1960s.

  • If you’d like to compromise here, calling King a libertarian socialist seems fair.