Martin Luther King, Jr. as Conservative Militant


The Oxford English Dictionary first defines militant as an adjective in which one is “engaged in warfare” and cross references church militant, a noun defined as “the church on earth, considered as fighting against evil.” The OED’s third definition of militant, also an adjective, is one who is “combative; aggressively persistent; strongly espousing a cause; entrenched, adamant.” This adjusts itself in the noun form of militant as “a person who strongly espouses a cause, esp[ecially] one who is aggressively active in pursuing a political or social cause. In later use also: spec[ifically], a member of an ideologically or politically motivated faction or force.”

As for conservative, the OED’s definition is an adjective describing one “[t]hat conserves, or favours the conservation of, an existing structure or system; (now esp[ecially]) designating a person, movement, outlook, etc., averse to change or innovation and holding traditional ideas and values, esp[ecially] with regard to social and political issues.

Combined, then, a conservative militant is “one who aggressively pursues social justice but who is averse to change or innovation and holds traditional values.” This makes the conservative militant an oxymoron, one who attempts to change the a system but one who does so gradually. August Meier claims that Martin Luther King Jr. is a conservative militant, and despite the term’s contradictory status, this claim is valid.

Meier examines King’s place within the Civil Rights movement and within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as a symbol of respectability and fashionability (150) (in the middle of the more militant SNCC and CORE and more conservative Urban League and NAACP (154)) which allows SCLC to receive “most of the publicity and most of the money” (149) for awakening white Americans’ consciences to the need for societal change (151) regarding the civil rights of black Americans. In “Beyond Vietnam,” King is at his most militant, urging clergymen to forgo their exempt status and register as conscientious objectors (King 156). But King remains cautious in allowing each person to “decide on the protest that best suits [each person’s] convictions” (156).

After explaining how he arrived at opposing the war in Vietnam and explaining the brutal history of American involvement in Vietnam, a long explanation that uses a long list of prophetic Jeremiadic failures on the part of the United States in relation to the the Vietnamese peasants (King 142-152), King “would like to suggest” five things the government “should do” to end the war in Vietnam (154). He militantly points out America’s failure but then merely suggests solutions for the government. The government can accept his recommendations or not.

However, King then explains the ongoing need for people to “continue to raise our voices and our lives” (155) by pointing out America’s failure to live by the “Western words” (151) (such as the American Declaration of Independence (146)) that had inspired the American Revolution and its own “political myth” of a country of equality (151) as well as “initiat[ing] so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world” (160). America’s need for “[a] true revolution of values” (158) in which America is part of a worldwide fellowship (160) calls for a “rededicat[ion] … to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world” (162). This “speak[ing] for peace in Vietnam” (162) is not that of a militant but of a conservative looking for safe ways of protesting injustice.

Thus, by preaching that those in the Civil Rights movement must respond by speaking up and must do only as much as each is convicted, King calls for a conservative approach to the issue in Vietnam; however, his “encourage[ment]” that all ministers register as conscientious objectors (156) is a militant request couched in conservative language. He requests that ministers make this controversial decision, but in looking at several online sites (Swathmore College Peace Collection’s Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO) Records, 1948-2010; The Peace Abbey’s National Registry for Conscientious Objection; and The King Center) I was unable to locate Martin Luther King Jr.’s own registration as a conscientious objector.

Thus, while King militantly spoke about America’s failures in Vietnam and as a political myth of equality whose sole hope for redemption lay in his five suggestions to the government, the request that ministers register as conscientious objectors, and that protestors find new ways to protest, King chose a conservative path and failed, as far as I could determine, to take the action he suggested of other ministers.

Works Cited

“Church Militant.” OED Online, Third Edition, Oxford UP, September 2011.

“Conservative.” OED Online, Third Edition, Oxford UP, November 2010.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam.” A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Claiborne Carson and Kris Shepard. IPM / Grand Central Publishing, 2001, pp. 139-164.

Meier, August. “The Conservative Militant.” Provided by professor.

“Militant.” OED Online, Third Edition, Oxford UP, March 2002.

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