How We Got Here: Martin Luther King and the “Right Way to Protest”

Few moments in the Civil Rights Movement – not even the Birmingham Bus Boycott or the March on Washington – encapsulate the stark moral drama embodied by Martin Luther King and his allies than “Bloody Sunday.” On March 7th, 1965, Dr. King led 600 protesters, black and white, on a march through Selma, Alabama in protest of voting restrictions and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge they were met by 150 Alabama State Troopers, dispatched by Governor George Wallace to block and disperse them.

The marchers ignored warnings to disperse, while the troopers refused to negotiate. Eventually the police unleashed tear gas, then charged on horseback using whips, chains, clubs and rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire to terrorize and bludgeon the demonstrators. Amazingly, none were killed, though fifty suffered serious injuries. The world was appalled, as television cameras captured the carnage in graphic, unflinching detail. Governor Wallace, shocked by the backlash and pressured by President Lyndon Johnson, allowed a climactic march on Montgomery which gathered some 25,000 participants.

For millions of Americans, Bloody Sunday removed any doubt about the morality of Civil Rights marchers and the evil of their oppressors. Lyndon Johnson, who’d been reluctant to pass the Voting Rights Act until King acted, responded by forcing the legislation through Congress. He announced it in a titanic speech culminating in his adopting the Civil Rights motto “We shall overcome!” A moment which moved even King, who had a fractious relationship with LBJ, to tears as he watched on television. The Civil Rights Movement reached its apotheosis, thanks to a moment of national outrage.

Bloody Sunday

For William F. Buckley, doyen of the conservative movement, Selma also invoked outrage. Only Buckley directed it towards King and his trouble-making allies, whose defiance of an unjust law disgusted him more than state-sponsored white supremacy.

Buckley was already a formidable figure: founder of National Review and Young Americans for Freedom, host of television’s Firing Line, he put an energetic, urbane face on conservatism (“stolen it from the possession of old men,” in Rick Perlstein’s words). Despite his hard line adherence to small-government principles, he gained a reputation both for wit and seemingly reasonable stances, such as excommunicating neo-Nazis and the John Birch Society from movement conservatism.

Unfortunately, beneath Buckley’s urbane exterior beat a reactionary heart. A patrician New Englander with a Southern mother and a deep Catholicism, he evinced all the prejudices expected from such a background. His early books carped about “liberal academia” and defended right-wing monsters ranging from Joe McCarthy at home to Francisco Franco in Spain (his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell III, even created a homegrown fascist militia in imitation of Franco). On other occasions, he proposed shipping welfare recipients to an island and tattooing all AIDS patients. And on racial justice, the ’50s and ’60s most pressing moral issue, he was utterly derelict.

William F. Buckley

Buckley expressed his views most virulently in his 1957 essay “Why the South Must Prevail.” Regarding the battles raging over desegregation following Brown vs. Board and the Little Rock confrontation, Buckley couched his opinion in unequivocal terms. “The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

How might the white community prevail? In authoritarian terms belying Buckley’s ostensible small government mania. “Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of the minority, in which case…society will regress,” he laments. “Sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.” Richard Russell, Ian Smith or Augusto Pinochet couldn’t have put it better.

Buckley sparred with any number of black leaders (his debate with James Baldwin is considered a disaster even by Buckley’s fans), but reserved particular ire for King. He once joked that “I live in constant fear that I will die before having the opportunity to say no to Martin Luther King.” He also dismissed King as “more sensitive, and so more bitter, than the average American Negro, and hence unqualified as a litmus of the Southern Negro’s discontent” (as if King were a cranky editorial writer rather than leader of a national movement). But it was in his response to Selma that Buckley reached his rhetorical nadir.

Buckley Speech
Buckley, the Man Who Would Be Mayor

At the time, Buckley was preparing his quixotic campaign for Mayor of New York City, finding the Republican candidate, John Lindsay, too liberal and the Democrat, Abraham Beame, unspeakable. On April 4th, he gave a speech before the Communion Breakfast of Catholic Policemen at the New York Hilton addressing the issue of Selma and Civil Rights. To the delight of the 5,600 assembled policemen, but few of the reporters in attendance, he delivered a muscular apologia for George Wallace’s beleaguered troopers.

When Buckley’s speech wasn’t grossly ill-informed (twice claiming, for instance, that President Johnson “mobilized the Alabama National Guard – at the Governor’s urging,” which inverted reality) it alternated between victim blaming and defending police brutality. After all, “Dr. King had crossed the bridge and there policemen, acting under orders – whether ill-advised or not is most precisely not the business of policemen…informed them that they might not proceed.” Thus the police had no responsibility for their actions, being merely the instruments of an order.

Who was to blame for the public’s reaction, Buckley wondered? Naturally, the media:

“The next thing the American viewer saw was a flurry of night sticks and the pursuit of the screaming demonstrators back across the bridge into the streets of Selma. What the viewer did not see was a period of time, twenty long minutes…when the two camps stood facing each other, between the moment the Sheriff told the demonstrators to return, which order the demonstrators refused by standing there in defiance of it, until the moment when the human cordite was touched…The policemen moved excitedly, humanly, forward; excessively, yes, and their excesses on that day have been rightly criticized, but were ever the excesses criticized of those who provoked them beyond the endurance which we tend to think of as human?”

Thus, the naked violence visited upon King and his fellow marchers was less repulsive than the media daring to cover it. Never mind that Buckley couldn’t specify what provocation triggered such a gross reaction from Wallace’s enforcers, because it didn’t exist; facts detracted from his narrative of police victimhood. Won’t you, the reader, please consider the plight of a policeman who hated blacks so much he traded his baton for a rubber club wrapped in razor wire? Here, in the admittedly erudite words of a self-proclaimed genius, is the same glib bleating about “fake news” which emanates from today’s social media and ideological hate swamps.

George Wallace

He similarly disparaged the death of Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroit woman murdered by Klansmen several days after the march on Montgomery. While Buckley decried her death, he also dismissed its importance, asking whether the killing “merely confirm[ed] what everyone has been saying about certain elements of the South?” And why, he mused, didn’t the press complain about the “unprovoked killing of a policeman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi” that same night? (Not that Buckley was alone in such blindness: one woman wrote to The Ladies Home Journal to say that Liuzzo “should have stayed home and minded her own business.”)

In other words, “All Lives Matter.” Buckley’s message landed with New York City police officers, who resented John Lindsay’s calls for police reform and openly sported “Buckley for Mayor” buttons throughout the campaign. (It didn’t endear him to New Yorkers generally, as Buckley managed only 13.4 percent of the vote.) Buckley received censure from the press, and entered into a long-running war of words with Jackie Robinson, athlete-turned-activist, but remained unrepentant. If anything, he doubled down in editorials defending disenfranchisement of blacks: “if the entire Negro population in the South were suddenly given the vote…chaos would ensue.”

Buckley’s only response to the torrent of criticism, in his memoir The Unmaking of a Mayor, was to blame the “liberal media” for misreporting trivial details. He complained, for instance, that despite reports of policemen cheering his insensitive comments, the hall remained silent throughout these parts of his speech. Whether or not this was so (eyewitnesses predictably differed, though Buckley claimed to possess a tape recording verifying his version) seems hardly relevant to the point. Perhaps the NYPD didn’t actually cheer Buckley’s remarks; the remarks themselves remain monstrous.

MLK Selma.jpg

Admittedly, Buckley expressed these morally obtuse views with more sophistication than your average bar stool bigot, and more erudition than segregationists like Governor Wallace or Congressman William Dickinson, who denounced the marches as a breeding ground of miscegenation. “Negro and white freedom marchers,” he declared on the House floor, “invaded a Negro church in Montgomery and engaged in an all-night session of debauchery within the church itself.” Such responses from Dixiecrat fossils, however, should surprise no one. Buckley’s moral stagnation in the face of naked Evil is better only by degree.

Buckley never relented in his criticisms of King. Five days after King’s murder, he wrote a testy editorial wherein he concludes, after some deliberation, that MLK probably didn’t deserve assassination. Nonetheless, he slams the slain leader for “describ[ing] his intention of violating the law in Memphis” and blames King for rioting in that city. Certainly he blames MLK for his own demise: “The cretin who leveled his rifle at the head of Martin Luther King may have absorbed the talk…about the supremacy of the individual conscience…such talk as Martin Luther King…had so widely, and so indiscriminately, indulged in.”

In this, Buckley had many counterparts. Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, said that the riots triggered by King’s death were a “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.” Or Lionel Lokos, a conservative writer who proclaimed that MLK “left his country a legacy of lawlessness.” And lest we forget, King remained controversial enough decades later that dozens of congressmen voted against commemorating his birthday (and that many states, not all in the south, still refuse to observe it).

King, shortly before his death

In marked contrast, today’s conservative Republicans regularly invoke King, from Glenn Beck conjuring MLK for his own March on Washington in 2010 to pro-lifers invoking him as a standard bearer to a Trump spokesman comparing his candidate to King, to the absurd but persistent claim that King was even a Republican himself. Perhaps the low point of this noxious revisionism came last January, when Rob Schneider, whose civil rights bona fides consist of portraying ethnic stereotypes in Adam Sandler movies, told John Lewis, King’s ally and friend who survived Bloody Sunday, that he knew more about King than Lewis.

In one sense, it’s gratifying that MLK, so controversial in his lifetime that 63 percent of Americans held a negative opinion of him, is now so universally beloved that even conservative politicians, reactionary radio personalities and the star of The Hot Chick now embrace him as a hero. Too bad their claim that he was, deep down, a secret conservative isn’t backed up by history, as the words of Buckley, and King’s own record, attest.

King had a complicated relationship with both parties. He regularly allied with the moderate Republicans – particularly the hated Nelson Rockefeller – the GOP leadership has spent the past half-century purging from its ranks. He also criticized Dwight Eisenhower for not doing more for desegregation, denounced Barry Goldwater as “morally indefensible and socially suicidal” and Richard Nixon, whom he initially respected for his pro-Civil Rights rhetoric as Vice President only to revile his later pandering to the hard right, as “the most dangerous man in America.” During the lead-in to the 1968 election, he gave public, albeit tepid encouragements of Rockefeller and George Romney’s candidacies, while privately urging Eugene McCarthy to enter the Democratic primaries against LBJ.

MLK Rocky
King and Nelson Rockefeller

Nor was King, in fairness, a liberal Democrat. He branded John F. Kennedy an opportunist who needed to do more “in the area of moral persuasion by occasionally speaking out against segregation.” His relationship with Lyndon Johnson alternated between mutual respect and pragmatic, wary alliance, before openly breaking with Johnson over the Vietnam War. For their part, Kennedy called King “so hot these days that it looks like Marx coming to the White House,” while Johnson dismissed King as a “nigger preacher,” ramped up J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to discredit or demoralize him and wondered “what more does he want” than the Civil Rights Act.

Naturally, King’s objections to Kennedy and Johnson weren’t that they were too progressive for his take. As early as 1952 he told future wife Coretta Scott that “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” While he remained circumspect about publicly expressing these views, he had no reservations about working with socialists like Stanley LevisonBayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. For that matter, his disagreements with Black Power advocates like Stokely Carmichael, typically invoked as antitheses to King, were generally more rhetorical than substantive. Such views certainly informed his later critiques of American imperialism and capitalist greed which culminated in his outspoken antiwar activism shortly before his death. These positions were less an evolution in his views than increased willingness to express them.

Conservatives who invoke King must ask themselves whether, with their hatred of protests and fetish for “law and order,” they sympathize with his view that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Or whether they feel comfortable embracing someone who complained that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is…the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.” Or whether a leader who urged that “America must move towards a democratic socialism” would truly embrace Paul Ryan or Donald Trump’s vision for America.

King Johnson

Which doesn’t stop Buckley’s descendants from aping, and occasionally besting, their progenitor’s cluelessness. Some, confronted with Black Lives Matter, Antifa and activism against Donald Trump’s cryptofascist regime, merely recycle Buckley’s arguments. Consider, for instance, National Review editor Rich Lowry’s vituperation against “the Left’s lawless shock troops” protesting the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014: “The Left has long posited various means of achieving social justice…to these methods must now be added traffic congestion. All of these ordinary people,” he complains, “are being inconvenienced for the sin of having somewhere to go.”

Funny how Buckley made similar complaints 49 years earlier, wondering “how long…should sit-ins be allowed to squat down in major traffic zones?” He continued pondering “at what point do the local authorities begin to transfer their concern from the rights of dissenters to dissent…to the right of the community to practice the profession of living?” For both men, civil liberties and the First Amendment extend only so far as they don’t inconvenience the white middle class.

When feeling particularly mendacious, these noted clowns ventriloquize King for their own arguments. In another column, Lowry proclaims that “the difference between demonstrators in Selma and Ferguson is the difference between dignity under enormous pressure in a righteous cause and heedless self-indulgence in the service of a smear.” Strong words indeed, if a little late. It only took National Review a half-century to recognize King’s courage – and only then, “in the service of a smear” against those protesting modern-day inequities.


Another National Review scribe, Deroy Murdock, reverted to childish moral equivalence when discussing last August’s Charlottesville riot, where white supremacists murdered protester Heather Heyer. His response to President Trump’s blaming the violence on “both sides” is that he was justified in doing so. “The bitterness is pointed fully at Trump and his words — as imprecise and ill-timed as some of them were — as if the president of the United States, and not a 20-year-old bloodthirsty racist, were behind the wheel of that deadly Dodge Challenger,” he complains. Besides pretending that Trump has a long history of attacking white supremacists – an Orwellian rereading of reality – Murdock blames Heyer’s death, in part, on the “extreme Leftists who opposed [white supremacists] with force.”

Like Viola Liuzzo, Heyer might have been physically murdered by violent racists, but the moral blame lies with her allies, and the victim herself. Such twaddle occupies the same moral plane as those who bemoan protesters breaking a Starbucks window while dismissing the mass shooting of 500 human beings as the “price of freedom.” Or how black athletes kneeling silently during the National Anthem are “sons of bitches” while murderous white supremacists include “very fine people.”


King and Buckley would have recognized these arguments. I can’t imagine that their reactions would be the same. And unlike modern conservative cretins, I certainly don’t imagine that they’d be on the same side.

Edit: Originally the penultimate paragraph linked to an NRO piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty which criticizes the alt-right’s conduct at Charlottesville. Evidently I misinterpreted it as condemning the Antifa protesters, and rewrote that segment for a more appropriate link. Sadly, such an article was distressingly easy to find.