MLK\'s lasting contribution

Living in Atlanta has made me think about Martin Luther King more than I otherwise would. I mean, I went to public schools and learned the same mythology everyone else did. But constantly being surrounded by King's legendary presence—his bones rest in a shrine a mile and a half from my residence—I've had cause to consider the legend from time to time.

No person worth serious consideration is against civil rights as such, but there are reasons to oppose some specific manifestations of civil rights measures: specifically, the inability to discriminate on private property. I've always considered the right to exclude some people from your property a more fundamental part of everyone's liberty than the right to eat a meal in a restaurant that doesn't serve members of whatever your community is. Moreover, the market will bring social harmony better than a law will. Businesses that are racist will suffer for it, and businesses that are not will benefit. Irrational attitudes will be educated out of people by the market, where a law forcing them to abandon irrational attitudes is still a law that forces, which is destructive of its own goal of social harmony, and which just creates resentment and mistrust.

I'm not a King expert, but his legacy always seemed to include a lot more support for laws than support for more strategic and less legally forceful means than the legacies of others in the movement. And this always made me feel that his importance to history was inflated far, far beyond his actual significance.

And then there's the plagiarism thing, which I won't go into here, but which is very damaging to a reputation.


All in all I think King contributed in a very large and important way to society, and his Nobel certainly attests to this: he steadfastly rejected violence for his whole career. There were many people active in the civil rights movement, and no one man can be given too much credit for it. But he can be given a large amount of credit for keeping the movement peaceful. The civil rights movement could have gone the Malcolm X way of correcting injustice "by any means necessary." That approach has its appeal, for sure. But the images of protesters being driven down the street with firehoses for simply marching could highlight injustice in a way that nothing else could.

The idea of non-violent resistance has a long and glorious history. Thoreau and Tolstoy inspired millions, and Gandhi changed the lives of hundreds of millions. But it was King who put non-violence in the Western mind and enthroned it there. I've attended several protests in the past few years, and every one has been infused with a commitment to non-violence. The larger the protest the more the insistence on peaceful protest. There are still violent protests in the West, but those are (properly) dismissed as being the demands of clowns and thugs.

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