January 23, 2012 columns

Black History and Liberty

Blanks discusses the struggles for freedom during the civil rights movement and libertarians hesitancy to address the period.

Libertarians joined much of the country in honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Monday, the national recognition of his transcendent fight for liberty and civil rights. Countless quotes attributed to King streamed on Twitter and peppered Facebook walls of people of nearly every ideological strain. Not at all coincidentally, most of the quotes reflected the political thinking of the sharer—implying a post facto confirmation that the sharer’s deeply held beliefs would comfortably answer the question “What Would MLK Do?” As much as I respect Dr. King’s heroism, dedication, and belief in justice—and I would like to think there would be issues where he and I would be in solid agreement if he were alive—I am quite sure my views and his would sharply diverge on many of the issues today. This doesn’t mean I don’t admire him or think he shouldn’t be commemorated, but I’m not going to pretend or imply he’d espouse or condone libertarianism. Nevertheless, Dr. King seems to be the lone exception to an unwritten rule that libertarians should embrace only strictly classical liberal or free market understandings of liberty. Consequently, many of today’s libertarians are notably silent about the most profound fight for liberty in the history of the United States.

My problem with MLK Day has always been that making it so explicitly about him overshadows the countless thousands who preceded him in “the Struggle”—the continuous fight for civil rights of which the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century was a part—and those who were his contemporaries and, at times, adversaries. Much like I have been deeply critical of the cult of personality that surrounded Obama in 2008 or that has been associated with the Ron Paul R3VOLution since then, I find the elevation of men to virtual sainthood is detrimental both to the individuals at the center of the admiration and to the causes they purportedly represent. Furthermore, in the cases of MLK and other historical figures, it is all the more unfair that we try to map ancestral leaders onto modern political or ideological movements in order to give gravitas to current efforts. At best, efforts to co-opt a dead hero to a cause of which they were never made aware seems anachronistic and insufficient. At worst, it’s pandering. In between, there is a range of self-righteous ignorance and ahistorical self-service that denigrates both the subject and the co-opting party.

Individuals are complex and imperfect. Admirable acts are sometimes done by less-than-admirable people and vice versa. Any references to long-gone heroes should be made in context and without the implication that they would stand with the people of today doing their idea of ‘the Lord’s work.’ To that end, I would like to try to bring the ideas and history of African-Americans’ fight for freedom to a libertarian audience without saying these heroes of liberty would necessarily fit within the traditional libertarian framework. Indeed, much of the Struggle was fought from abject poverty and enforced illiteracy, concurrent to but wholly separated from (and thus ignorant of) the classical liberal tradition and free market economics. Yet, this could not possibly mean the Struggle was demeaned or less valid because of it.

It is remarkable that American libertarians—so often eager to discuss freedom in nearly every conceivable iteration—rarely address African-Americans and the Struggle for civil rights in America. Slavery is long gone, but it is hardly coincidence that the descendants of slaves have accounted for disproportionate percentages of Americans in poverty and incarceration in the 150+ years hence. Save Emancipation and America’s reluctant recognition of the 14th Amendment by way of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s, the government has consistently (though not exclusively) been a boot on the necks of African-Americans, hindering progress and true equality. Yet libertarians tend to shrink away from acknowledging race for fear of involving themselves in “identity politics” and thus rarely discuss the government’s legacy of racial oppression.

If libertarianism is to be something more than free markets—libertarianism’s guiding principle is, after all, liberty—then its adherents should recognize that liberty is the end of, not just the means to, a better society. Thus, when looking for people to hold up as exemplars of liberty, we need to stop thinking “Was ______ a libertarian?” and start thinking: Did ________ fight for liberty? Is there something we can learn from him about what it means to be free? What exactly was he fighting againstand what did his denied freedom teach him? What mistakes did he make and what mistakes by others resulted in the denial of his freedom? How did the government fail him? How did society fail him?

These questions are all eminently more interesting than assertions that Frederick Douglass was a libertarian or that certain putatively libertarian writers were on the right side of the Struggle—true though they may be. Such discussions amount to libertarian trivia—much the way “black history” is treated each February: 30-second sound bites between segments of How I Met Your Mother and Two and a Half Men. The context in which people found themselves as they struggled for their own freedom invariably colored their perception of the world around them, and these perceptions must be taken into account when looking back upon them from a modern vantage point. This is not to necessarily excuse their behavior or opinions that we may hold in low regard today, but in order to understand what the world looked like to them and how they chose to engage it.

Whether Libertarianism.org is the best venue to tackle these questions and contextualize the Struggle for liberty within the ‘Land of the Free’ remains to be seen, but I look forward to the conversation so long as Aaron will have me. I thank him for the opportunity to share some of this history—and my perspective on it—with you.