Martin Luther King on Barry Goldwater: Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Part IX

Randall Stephens

Martin Luther King, Jr., reflected on the career and influence of Barry Goldwater several years after LBJ's landslide victory. (With all the media attention to King's legacy and uses of the past, a look at King's own views might shed some much needed light.)

King observed the rightward turn of the Republican Party in 1964, the intense anti-government polices of Goldwater, and the Radical Right presence at the GOP convention. "It was both unfortunate and disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States," lamented King. "In foreign policy Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation."

But what bothered King more was Goldwater's domestic policies. He offered a stinging critique of what he considered the Arizona Senator's antiquated, out-of-touch ideology:

On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. The issue of poverty compelled the attention of all citizens of our country. Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.*

*From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, ed., Clayborne Carson (Time Warner, 1998), 247. See also, Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (Harper & Row, 1967).


Kelly J. Baker said…
All I think about is MacLean's essay in _Debating American Conservatism_ about how the roots of conservatism is to defend white privilege.

Thank you, Randall, for posting this. It should come in handy to me as I ponder things like the historiography of American conservatism, the Christian Right and the recent march on D.C.
A really good focused study that plays a lot of this out is Kevin Kruse's _White Flight_. There he argues that the roots of modern conservatism lie in segrationist rhetoric. His concluding chapter has a really powerful voice.
Tom Van Dyke said…
If one approaches conservatism through the prism of race, one will find a facile account of it. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

However, the rise of conservatism is best described as an opposition to the rise of radicalism at that time; the Civil Rights Movement had become a "social justice" movement, even MLK, let alone the black radicals like Malcolm or the Panthers.

Neither was the "social justice" movement just a black thing; you had yer hippies, the Old Left, the New Left all uniting over Vietnam. Add in busing, and later, Acid, Amnesty and Abortion...

Anyway, one cannot study "conservatism" in a vacuum like some benighted bug in a jar, as attractive as the impulse is.

As for Goldwater, he had a creditable civil rights record before falling on his sword over the abstract principle of states' rights in 1964. Where the GOP got 30+% of the black vote in '56 and '60, Goldwater got 6%, and the GOP never recovered past 15% or so.

Still, a look at the MLK of 1968 all the way to the Congressional Black Caucus of 2010 shows an alignment solidly with progressive politics, not just with liberalism or the Democratic Party. This is certainly the other side of the coin, the other light in the prism.

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