The Tea Party as Inheritors of Dr. King’s Legacy?

To those predisposed because of ideological animus to dismiss the notion of the tea party movement being the true inheritors of Martin Luther King’s dream, you might as well click away now. But if you want to engage on this issue in a reasonable manner, discussing the pros and cons rationally, you are invited to read on and ponder both the irony and the efficacy of these claims as they relate to history as well as current events.

It’s an interesting effort at spin for tea party types to claim kinship with Dr. King. They in no way began the movement with that archetype in mind, nor had they expressed much interest in what engaged Dr. King and his civil rights movement. We were told it was all about “spending” and “taking the country back,” and “adherence to the Constitution.” These are, for the most part, worthy and vitally necessary issues for citizens to agitate for and against, but hardly touches the meat of what King and his followers were seeking.

Nevertheless, there are echoes of King’s social movement in the advocacy of the tea party. The goal of the civil rights movement was to open the eyes of the American people to the plight of their fellow citizens of color while agitating for a change in government policy that would help realize the goal of ending state-sponsored oppression. As for the tea party movement, it seeks to raise awareness among the American public of what they perceive to be the threat of big government while changing policy to reflect their ideals of a smaller, less intrusive government.

An interesting irony is the belief of tea party opponents that a “smaller” government would necessarily make enforcement of modern civil rights legislation more difficult. Given the animus of many tea party folk toward what is perceived as the overbearing hand of government in enforcing what they believe is discriminatory policies aimed against whites, that may be a valid criticism. In shrinking government, no doubt a prime target would be enforcement agencies like the EEOC whose quotas and mandates in attacking perceived discrimination have raised legitimate questions about how best to achieve what the left calls “social justice.”

There have been interesting debates recently about the meaning and intent of “social justice” as it relates to the law and politics. Clearly, the concept of “social justice” means different things to different people, and a dispositive resolution to that debate is not sought here. But there can be little argument that the means to achieve social justice employs the “positive rights” doctrine so much in opposition to the “negative rights” the Founders supported in creating a government that would ensure liberty.

Briefly, Wikpedia explains the difference between positive and negative rights:

[P]ositive rights permit or oblige action, whereas negative rights permit or oblige inaction. These permissions or obligations may be of either a legal or moral character. Likewise, the notion of positive and negative rights may be applied to either liberty rights or claim rights, either permitting one to act or refrain from acting, or obliging others to act or refrain from acting.

In short, an “activist” government vs. a “Leave me the hell alone” government.

Almost by definition, employing “positive rights” to rectify perceived wrongs in society means growing the size and scope of government to meet the requirement of forcing others to act, or permitting the government to intervene. Redistribution of wealth, ending historic advantages enjoyed by straight white males in employment and education, and grouping Americans into racial classifications to delineate “protected classes” of citizens all require a gigantic government to compel the rest of America to comply.

Is this what Dr. King had in mind? You will get an argument from racialists like Reverend Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other special pleaders in the civil rights movement. But clearly, King saw a different America than the one those gentlemen and their white, liberal, guilt-ridden elitist allies are trying to create.

I found this comment in an excellent New York Times piece about the Glenn Beck rally today revealing:

On his radio show, Mr. Beck said he had not intended to choose the anniversary for his “Restoring Honor” rally on Saturday but had since decided it was “divine providence.”

Dr. King’s dream, he told listeners, “has been so corrupted.”

“Judge a man by the content of his character?” he said. “Character doesn’t even matter in this country. It’s time we picked back up the job.”

He later added: “We are the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it.”

The words are compelling but the reality is quite different. The question that has never been debated or addressed by politicians is simply this; what is the best way to achieve the kind of society for which Martin Luther King spent his life trying to build and died in that dream’s service?

Glenn Beck and the tea partiers believe that America has matured to the point where much of the civil rights legislation and regulation of the last 45 years can either be scrapped or reformed (weakened). As proof, they offer the presidency of Barack Obama as exhibit one. Now that we have elected a black man president – largely as a result of whites voting in favor of his candidacy – the need for quotas and other measures to “level the playing field” for minorities who have been historically discriminated against has virtually disappeared, according to many in the tea party movement.

I am sure Dr. King would have scoffed at such a notion. Just as he would have scoffed at the modern interpretation of “social justice.” King was an eminently practical man who knew that America would have racial discrimination long after he left the stage. His belief that change would come only when the hearts and minds of Americans were turned from hate and that only through Christian love and charity would that change be effected animated much of his leadership. That, and a cunning politician’s grasp of what was achievable through “direct action” led to historic civil rights legislation that began the process of reversing 300 years of oppression.

King saw anti-discrimination measures such as affirmative action as temporary, inoffensive means to an end; the start of achieving equality with the white majority in the economic sphere. As it was originally designed by the Kennedy administration, affirmative action was voluntary, somewhat limited, and simply required that when examining candidates for employment, all other criteria being equal (experience, education, etc.) that the job should be given to the minority candidate in recognition of past wrongs.

This well meaning but impractical idea eventually gave way to compulsory “goals and timetables” in the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administration, and ended up as the mandatory quotas and mandates we have today. In discrimination cases, the burden of proof is now on the defendant to show that no discrimination was intended. Sometimes, even that isn’t good enough to avoid penalties.

Clearly, neither the tea party movement or contemporary special interest groups like the NAACP grasp the essence of Dr. King’s message of redemption and change. Nor does the application of positive rights lead to a more just society. Indeed, “social justice” may more accurately be defined as “government justice” in that it is the federal government that chooses to actively intercede on behalf of those minorities who have been historically oppressed.

There is no design to change the hearts and minds of Americans – quite reasonably because such a task is beyond the ken of any government. All government can do is mitigate against the effects of racism, the effects of discrimination. They cannot advance the notion of a color blind society, or a society where women are on equal footing with men, or where gays have the same opportunities as the rest of us. To believe otherwise, as apparently some who are passionate advocates for social justice do – is on par with believing in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. Any government big enough and strong enough to demand that a citizen think and act a certain way defines tyranny.

No, the tea party movement are not the inheritors of Dr. King’s legacy. His dream may have been similar, but he certainly would have objected to the tea party folk invoking his name to advance an agenda that, in some ways, would turn back the clock on progress.

On the other hand, King would have been equally concerned about how social justice advocates have twisted his message to include strictures and caveats that have little to do with “justice,” and everything to do with reserving goodies for favored interest groups.

It is a sad testimony about the legacy of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived that 42 years after his death, no one can quite decide just what that legacy should mean.

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