When someone changes the world for the better, everyone loves to try and hang their labels on them. Democrats like to try and claim Martin Luther King Jr. as one of their own because of his support for John F. Kennedy. Republicans try to say that the reverend was one of them because his daughter, a Republican activist, claims he was. Politicians of all stripes try to use quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. to their advantage.
There is very little actual evidence, however, of the civil rights leader’s true party choice. In reality, he explicitly chose to be non-partisan and never publicly supported a candidate of either party. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a Republican, nor was he a Democrat.
Now, just because he wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat does not mean that Martin Luther King Jr. was a libertarian. King was a very complex man who held political beliefs on all sides of the spectrum. He did, however, maintain a few very important libertarian positions.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous libertarian quote still applies today
The first of which is exemplified in the famous quote taken from his Letter From Birmingham Jail:
“there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong believer in civil disobedience and disobeying unjust laws. That belief was the starting point for every one of his marches and demonstrations. Libertarians today agree, and hold that an unjust law is no law at all. Natural law and natural rights always trump the laws of men. The government cannot simply pass laws that take away natural rights nor should those laws be obeyed if passed.
Non-violent protest, anti-war, and other libertarian beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr.
In addition to a belief in natural rights, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches consistently drew upon his strict belief in non-violent protest. He rightfully understood that he would never achieve his goals through force.
Libertarians believe in the non-aggression principle that states aggression against another’s property is inherently illegitimate. Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with that sentiment and always preached non-violent methods of protest.
Another area where Martin Luther King Jr. was a libertarian was in foreign policy and his famous opposition to the Vietnam War. King saw the dangers of American imperialism abroad and the threat to freedom that it posed at home as well.
Despite some libertarian beliefs, Martin Luther King Jr. was not a libertarian
Although Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong believer in natural rights, non-violence, and sincerely anti-war, he was not a libertarian. Martin Luther King Jr. could best be described as a social democrat or someone that wanted a large welfare state, heavily regulated capitalism, and the protection of civil liberties. Emphasizing his anti-capitalist strain, King even called for restitution at one point. Using the government to steal from some people to give it to others isn’t libertarian in any way, shape, or form.
That said, Martin Luther King Jr. did not have the impact he had on the 20th century and the civil rights movement because of those statist beliefs.
It was his dedication to human freedom, his libertarian side, that won him the support and respect of millions. Martin Luther King Jr. believed in individual, natural rights that transcended the unjust laws of man and that is what he is remembered for.