History is up to its old tricks again. The radical agitator of one generation becomes the conservative icon of another. Martin Luther King Jr. meets the very definition of an American conservative, that is, someone dedicated to preserving the gains of a liberal revolution.
Even when he was leading the civil rights movement, what appeal could have been more conservative or more American than his now classic speech before the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963?
"I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. 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."
Is any passage more frequently cited against the quota system called Affirmative Action? Is any passage so clear a call for what conservative candidates for president always seem to be calling for - character?
Even then Martin Luther King's words sounded conservative to those with ears to hear and minds to comprehend, for his message was rooted in traditional values. No wonder the young black radicals of the Sixties used to deride him as De Lawd. It was a toss-up whether his politics or his religion offended them more; the two were inseparable in his case.
To watch this black Baptist preacher out of Alabama on the old, black-and-white television tapes as he describes his very American dream is to realize how easily his ideas could have come from a conservative political tract - if only conservative political tracts were better written. Nothing was clearer about Dr. King's dream than the transformation of political struggle into morality tale. Which explains his effectiveness. He appealed to a common moral ground.
There were always those who thought of Dr. King's sermons as just window dressing for his social aims. They had it backwards. It was his religious ideas that compelled him to make the case for social and political change, and seek to create what he called The Beloved Community.
"Black and white together," the demonstrators used to sing. You don't hear that song much any more. Which may explain why the civil rights movement stopped moving. It became infected with much the same racial myopia it had fought, only with the colors reversed. (Black Power!)
After he was gone, a new black intelligentsia arose that knew not Martin. His would not be the name embroidered on the baseball caps of another generation. The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. would give way to the frustrations of a Malcolm X, the demagoguery of a Louis Farrakhan, and the general hucksterism of the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons.
Today, any black leaders who don't adhere to the party line - a Ward Connerly or Clarence Thomas or Thomas Sowell - are called traitors to their race. Others are dismissed as "not black enough" because they reach out to all of us. This is the new racism, and it needs to be called such.
A new intolerance divides us by Race and Gender, and into Minority and Majority. It strives to make many out of one. It's called multiculturalism, and it reverses that most American of mottos: E Pluribus Unum.
But the light can be blinked only so long. John Marshall Harlan's old ideal of a color-blind Constitution still shines, and begins to be reflected in Supreme Court decisions - and in a general American indifference to racial appeals. Barack Obama runs for president not as a black candidate but as one more choice, and does well. Indeed, he demonstrates daily that a black presidential candidate can be as vacuous as any other. It's progress of a sort.
You can tell a lot about an age by the heroes it chooses. While the Malcolms and Farrakhans come and go in favor, Martin Luther King Jr. remains the standard by which all other leaders are measured, and not just black leaders. That's a hopeful sign.