Conservatives of '90s embrace King of '60s

January 15, 1994|By Victoria White | Victoria White,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- For years it has been no contest: Political liberals proclaimed themselves the heirs to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., while conservatives said emphatically that was fine with them.

To liberals, Dr. King was a courageous fighter, a leader in the fight for civil rights. Among conservatives, he was often derided as a philandering husband at best, a communist at worst.

But today, words of praise for the slain leader can be found in many ideological quarters, including the very bastion of conservative Republicanism, the Heritage Foundation.

Yesterday the Washington think tank grasped for a piece of the King legacy by sponsoring a program on "The Conservative Virtues of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." Speakers emphasized King's vision of a color-blind society and his emphasis on racial harmony.

"There are parts of Dr. King's message that were not conservative," Heritage vice president Adam Meyerson acknowledged afterward. "He looked too much to government, to the federal state for economic opportunity. . . . But there is much to cherish in Dr. King's memory."

The most prominent speaker was William J. Bennett, a Heritage fellow and former education secretary in the Reagan administration who is considered a likely presidential candidate in 1996.

He has been on the front lines of the battle to restore study of Western civilization to a more prominent position in schools. That effort is at odds with the multiculturalism promoted by blacks and other minorities.

Mr. Bennett says he has long admired Dr. King, and organized a teach-in honoring his works when the minister was assassinated in 1968.

"Lots of people will be invoking King over the weekend," Mr. Bennett told an audience of 50 people. "But they won't take his words seriously, just some of them."

He said that in Dr. King's day, those who believed his memorable phrase that people should be judged "not by the color of their skin but the content of their character" were considered liberal.

"If you say it now, you're a conservative" because liberals, Mr. Bennett said, are obsessed with race-conscious programs.

The lecture was part of a sporadic effort by Republicans to reach out to blacks for political support, though the overwhelming majority vote Democratic.

Mr. Bennett said Republicans must not assume that blacks will vote for Democrats. "You've got to give them a place to go" other than the Democratic Party, he said, adding that the GOP must fight "the stereotype a lot of Republicans have about blacks." That stereotype, he said, was that black people do not care about their children and only care about more spending programs.

Mr. Meyerson said there has been a growing belief over the last 10 to 15 years that blacks "are a deeply conservative community, that there is an artificial distance between the conservative movement and black America and that we as conservatives have to do more to reach out to black Americans and represent their interests."

"I think there is a general recognition in conservative circles that conservatives were on the wrong side of the civil rights movement in the mid-'60s," Mr. Meyerson said.

Clint Bolick, a conservative who fought President Clinton's nomination of Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department's civil rights division by labeling her a "quota queen," said many conservatives now find Dr. King's appeal to racial harmony refreshing. "Even though many conservatives didn't like him then, they like him now," he said.

But, he said, there are many who still have no use for the man.

"I think that is one of the major challenges of the conservative movement today, to strongly repudiate racist vestiges and strongly promote a civil rights vision," Mr. Bolick said.

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