Political Hay

Martin Luther King Limbaugh

Dr. King and Rush versus moderates on race: Cornyn, Steele fear the elephant in the room on Sotomayor nomination.

By 6.9.09

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"We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writing on racism in Letter from a Birmingham Jail

"I care about whether she's qualified, and I think she's disqualified herself. Not only does she lack the often-discussed appropriate judicial temperament, it's worse than that. She brings a form of bigotry or racism to the court. I don't care -- we're not supposed to say it, we're supposed to pretend it didn't happen, we're supposed to look at other things, but it's the elephant in the room."
-- Rush Limbaugh speaking on racism and Judge Sonia Sotomayor on his radio show

Separated at Birth? Dr. Martin Luther King and Rush Limbaugh?

Let's start here with one of the famous documents of modern American history.

While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell in April 1963, arrested for protesting what would today be called identity politics (in 1963 this meant keeping blacks out of public facilities as part of the drive to preserve the white identity), objection was raised to Dr. King about his tactics. This objection did not, however, come from the Bull Connors of the day -- they were so ferocious in their opposition no one could mistake what they thought. To this day the images of the snarling Birmingham police dogs and fire hoses unleashed against blacks by Connor in his role as the local Safety Commissioner are frozen in time.

No, Dr. King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail was in fact a response to a protest from the moderates of the day. Specifically eight moderate Alabama ministers had written a statement they termed "A Call for Unity," running it as an ad in the local paper. They made it plain they were not happy with Dr. King. The moderates characterized Dr. King as an "outside agitator" whose vivid protests against racism were "unwise and untimely." King, they said, was not pursuing his goals through the "proper channels."

Dr. King, sitting in jail, thought over his response carefully. With exasperation he realized that as bad as the Bull Connors of the world were, they really weren't the problem. The problem was with those he would term the "white moderates." Indeed, he had come to believe, moderation when it came to closing one's eyes to racism was inexcusable.

So Dr. King took the only paper he had available to him -- scraps of toilet paper and the margins of a newspaper -- and scribbled out his thoughts, addressing his letter to the self-declared moderates in the clergy at large who were upset with his direct confrontation of racism. It was a message intended as well for all Americans who saw themselves as political moderates. King said this about the moderates of the day:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action."

Citing complaints that he was raising tensions with his language and actions, King went on:

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

Five months after speaking of the importance of confronting racism (which he called an ugly "boil" and Limbaugh today calls "the elephant in the room") King would stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and deliver these famous lines from his speech to the March on Washington. Speaking on his radio show in 2009, Rush Limbaugh would concur.

Dr. King, 1963: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Rush Limbaugh, 2009: "Whatever happened to the content of one's character as the basis of judging people?"

In other words, amid the tumult of 1963, Dr. King went out of his way to put himself on record as supporting a core belief, a belief Limbaugh has repeatedly endorsed -- the idea of a colorblind America.

Dr. King also learned along the way that the "great stumbling block" to creating a colorblind America always seemed to be someone who was constantly saying, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action."

This mantra, of course, is exactly the thought behind the moderates who have laced into Rush Limbaugh (and Newt Gingrich) in recent days. In fact, the similarity between the sentiments of Dr. King and Rush Limbaugh when it comes to moderates is striking. Here they are, side-by-side:

Here's Dr. King: "I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate…who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action."

And here's Rush: "There's truly something not right about people who claim to be standing with us on our side, who find it impossible to be critical of people who deserve to be called on their actions and their words. There is something self-destructive, perhaps self-loathing about some of them."

Identity politics -- appearing in the form of segregation in 1963 -- is the politics that forced Dr. King into that Birmingham jail in the first place. And segregation, in turn, was alive and well in 1963 because of Supreme Court decisions (Civil Rights Cases in 1883 and Plessy v. Feguson in 1896 ) that specifically gave a thumbs up to racism by overturning the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and denying the plain intent of the 14th Amendment, not to mention giving short shrift to the 13th and 15th amendments that ended slavery and gave voting rights to blacks. It is, as a growing body of evidence makes clear, exactly the politics that is at the core of Sonia Sotomayor's beliefs about just about everything. It is the politics-made-law that led this country to disaster and that President Obama wishes to restore to the Supreme Court

THE WASHINGTON POST in a recent story said Sotomayor attributed her year-long delay in being confirmed as a Clinton nominee to the Second Court of Appeals to "Republican ethnic stereotypes of her." Yet the real reason for the delay had nothing to do with ethnic stereotyping. Excessive delays of judicial confirmation hearings was a tactic invented by (according to his own later admission) Senator Ted Kennedy during the Bork nomination to the Supreme Court. The delay went from a routine 14 days after a nomination to 77 days and got worse, much worse, after that. It had nothing to do with race, and has been used as a tactic by both sides ever since. If Sotomayor has a complaint on this -- or on the trial by fire she is about to undergo -- she has Senator Kennedy and Vice President Biden (who helped his friend Teddy delay the Bork hearings) to thank for it. But instead of checking her facts, she played the race card. Instinctively, it seems, which is exactly the problem with her nomination.

Over the weekend the New York Times revealed that in her now famous handling of the New Haven firefighters case the Judge had what the Times described as an "unusually charged" discussion with the firefighter's attorney -- a woman, it should be said. Said the Times of Sotomayor's actions on a racial case that the paper said was "bristling" with important implications: "The appeals court's cursory treatment suggested that the case was routine and unworthy of careful scrutiny. Yet the case turned out to be important enough to warrant review by the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in April and is likely to issue a decision this month."

When the firefighters' attorney protested that it was not a good idea to be hiring unqualified firefighters when even qualified firefighters "die every week," an irritated Sotomayor snapped: "Counsel, we're not suggesting that unqualified people be hired. The city's not suggesting that. All right?" Yet that was precisely the result Sotomayor was trying to suggest -- and in fact tried to force through her decision. Not for her Dr. King's belief that one should be "judged by the content of their character" or, in this case, impartial test results. The "wise Latina" was injecting her racial beliefs into a deeply serious legal issue, ruling against white firefighters in favor of what she likes to call "people of color." The ultimate well-being of some poor New Haven soul in need of emergency help from a qualified firefighter be damned.

Sotomayor, as gathered from her own words and actions, is wedded to bringing her racial identity politics to her job -- in this case the US Supreme Court. In precisely putting his finger on this issue, in bluntly calling her use of racial politics for what they are, Rush Limbaugh -- just as was true with Dr. King - is being scolded by so-called "moderates" for explicitly speaking the truth.

Dr. King defended his actions by saying of Birmingham's obsession with race that he had "brought it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with." Likewise, Limbaugh has opened up the philosophy behind Sotomayor's beliefs as repeatedly expressed in her speeches, her complaint about the judicial confirmation process, and her ruling in the New Haven firemen's case. He has, just as Dr. King advocated, exposed racism or what King called the "ugliness" and a "boil" to, in King's phrase, "the air of national opinion" -- which is to say the 20 million Americans a week who listen to The Rush Limbaugh Show.

And just as with Dr. King, sure enough the moderates flocked to take Rush to task.

Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Republican National Chairman Michael Steele have mimicked the same instinctive flinching reaction as those moderate ministers of 1963. As King said of the moderates of his day, these present-day Republican leaders (and other moderates) are petrified of what King called "tension," preferring a "negative peace" to a "positive justice." In saying these things the moderate Senator and moderate party chairman view Limbaugh exactly as the moderate ministers viewed Dr. King.

They see Rush as an "outside agitator" (as King was called) with no standing, while Republican Senators are cast in the role of the reasonable "local Negro leadership" -- which is to say, presumably more reasonable because they are more susceptible to pressure. For the local Negro leadership of Birmingham, this meant, first, the physical safety of their families' lives, followed by jobs and economic security. For Republican Senators, this means winning an election.

Cornyn, Steele, and some others have surrendered instantly to the terms of the debate as insisted upon by the left -- when in fact they should be challenging them. This is not a debate about putting a Hispanic on the Court, or Miguel Estrada would be sitting there now. The first Mexican-American Attorney General of the United States, George W. Bush appointee Alberto Gonzales, would have served out his term as a colorblind AG instead of being railroaded by a white Democrat Senator from Vermont -- who not so coincidentally thinks this Hispanic is just dandy. No, this fight is about liberalism -- extreme left-wingism -- using race to get on the Court (or in Estrada's case to keep someone off the Court.) Once there the idea is then to run the Court using the politics of race, and at the next available opening add another Justice -- and another and another -- who identifies with racial politics. This is a place both the Court and the country have already been -- to the detriment of both. One need only mention court cases such as Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson to know how badly all of this will end. This is the merger of left-wing politics with a long and sordid history of a party soaked in racial politics. Were this nomination a Hollywood script it would be pitched as Birth of a Nation meets the Weather Underground.

TO READ THE COMPLAINT of the moderates that provoked King to write his Letter is to hear the handwringing tone moderates have used against Limbaugh or Gingrich. In a tone worthy of Cornyn, Steele, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan or even the estimable Wendy Long over at NRO (who lamented that "Somehow, this important debate is turning into an argument about race and identity politics"), the moderate ministers claimed that King's focus on the racism of Birmingham had not "contributed to the resolution" of the issue. They saw King as "extreme." While the ministers saw themselves proceeding in a "calm manner" they believed that it was necessary for King and his supporters to "show restraint" in dealing with the issue of racism, something they believed King was not doing. The moderate ministers said it was time for the black community to "withdraw support" from Dr. King and show "common sense."

Echoing the views of the ministers in dealing with race, Cornyn sees Limbaugh's King-style calling-out of racial politics as "terrible." Just as the moderate ministers wanted to silence King and leave things to their own "calm manner," Cornyn says: "This is not the kind of tone any of us want to set." Steele's version of the "calm manner" remark from 1963 is to castigate what he calls the "slammin' and rammin'" of Sotomayor. As the ministers insisted the Atlanta-based King was an "outsider" and an "agitator" who had no right to intrude in the Birmingham controversy, so Cornyn insists "neither one of these men" (meaning Limbaugh and Gingrich) should be seriously involved in the discussion of Sotomayor's record because they are not sitting U.S. Senators. As if her decisions on the Supreme Court would be limited to the 100 members of the Senate.

Steele even goes so far as to say that calling out racist politics means "we get painted as a party that's against the first Hispanic woman" Supreme Court nominee. In and of itself this remark troubles, indicating Steele himself buys into the left's phony template of the GOP on race and, even worse, the left's obsessive penchant for racial politics. If so, this is an incredible reaction from the chairman of the Party of Lincoln, particularly after having Oreo cookies thrown at him by left-wingers during his Senate run.

Once again, the similarity between Dr. King and Rush Limbaugh manifests itself. King, who was begged to leave Birmingham alone, said the issue was about racism in America -- not just about Birmingham. This was a national issue, not just a local one. Hence he had no intention of doing anything other than turning up the heat on Birmingham to keep turning up the heat on all of America, moderates be damned. Again, here is Dr. King, and then Rush Limbaugh today:

Dr. King: He was "in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values of our Judaeo-Christian values."

Rush Limbaugh: "We look at people as individuals. I don't care what race she is. I don't care what gender she is."

Said Mrs. King later of the point of her husband's words, they were designed to "radiate" outward from Birmingham, "cracking the whole edifice of discrimination" in America.

So too do Rush Limbaugh's words now radiate outward, correctly changing this debate from simply focusing on the role of a judge to the tragic and bitter role of racial politics in American life. As with King, Limbaugh's words are dangerous because if enough people listened they could eventually "crack the whole edifice" of the latest version of discrimination in America -- identity politics. Ironically, Rush Limbaugh has created the meaningful conversation on race that Bill Clinton said he wanted but never achieved. More to the current point, he has shown up President Obama, the man who campaigned to be America's first "post-racial president." Limbaugh is shining a spotlight on Obama's troubling endorsement of the kind of the racial politics so flagrantly displayed by Obama's own one-time minister, the race-baiting Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

For reasons that baffle, Steele is also worried that calling out racist politics means "MSNBC will rip everything we have to say up into shreds." Putting aside that MSNBC's ratings are lower than a snake's belly, perhaps it should be said that if race is the game, MSNBC is in no place to play that game. Of the four shows it puts on in prime time? You might call them "Three White Guys and that Nice Jewish Girl." Not to mention the opening fare of the day, "Morning Joe," which perhaps could be re-titled as "White Joe in the Morning" since it stars two white boys and the Nice Polish White Girl. There's not a young Latina or even a Latino, heaven forbid a black or Asian -- male, female, gay, straight, wise or otherwise -- in the bunch. The last opening they had in their line-up they promptly gave to a white guy from North Dakota. Perhaps they could at least find a young Latino or Latina to replace the older, white and Irish Nora O'Donnell, MSNBC's chief Washington correspondent. O'Donnell has expressed concern on-air in support of appointing Supreme Court Justices by gender, saying she believes in "affirmative action." Which begs the question. What is she doing there when there are surely all manner of younger "people of color" who could do the job as well if not better? Ms. O'Donnell presumably has nothing to worry about in this area from the brass. There are more white guys running NBC and General Electric than are left in the Klan.

Said Dr. King in response to the Cornyn's and Steele's of his day: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." He added that he was disturbed to find his direct and highly pointed dissent about race, which he viewed as "normal and healthy discontent," portrayed by moderates as "extremist." King turned the table on the "extremist" label by adding that he had hoped moderates would see that "the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists" Indeed. Ditto, Republicans.

Where do Republicans and conservatives expect to find themselves at the end of this process? If it isn't still carrying the flag as the colorblind party of Lincoln and Reagan, then they will be in trouble and deservedly so. Newsflash: all Hispanics do not think alike. The thought itself is the very epitome of what's wrong in this debate.

As more and more of Judge Sotomayor's thinking has become public it is increasingly clear just how correct Rush Limbaugh has been on this issue of racism. Just as Dr. King was met with prim resistance from the moderates of his day, insisting that King was an "extremist" and must be dismissed as an "outside agitator" -- so now are these very same charges being hurled by today's moderates against the colorblind advocacy of Mr. Limbaugh. For, it must be said, the very same reason. They just want to be nice. They do not care about justice, as Dr. King said, they care about order. And Rush, very much in the style of Dr. King, has disrupted their orderly parade.

There is nothing nice about racism, whether it appears in the form of fire hoses and police dogs or a curt dismissal from a judge on the Second Court of Appeals. Judge Sotomayor may well have an appealing personality, but it is her racial beliefs that are at issue -- and as Dr. King went to some length to point out, even nice people can be racists. Indeed, Dr. King responded to another moderate criticism about his rejection of the then-newly elected Mayor of Birmingham by astutely pointing out that just because the new mayor was a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo."

Exactly. Make no mistake: Judge Sotomayor is diametrically opposed to a colorblind nation. She is a passionate believer in what has long been the Democrats' status quo -- judging people by race.

And Rush Limbaugh, to his considerable credit, has called her on it. More to the point, in focusing on "the elephant in the room" he has, just like Dr. King, put the feet of moderates to the fire. Isn't it interesting that the national holiday signed into law by President Reagan honored Dr. King -- and not a group of moderates?

There was a reason.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.