What do MLK and Robert E. Lee have to do with Global Politics?

I originally intended to post a different post today, before I realized this was “Martin Luther King Day.” I have substituted this blog post, which is thematically more appropriate, but less well developed. I may add more links later, but will note so in edits.


Both King and Lee influenced and were influenced by local, national and international politics, although in opposite ways.

The organization I work for only observers federal, not local or state, holidays, so it was only this year that I learned—disappointingly, but not surprisingly—that in my state of residence, the holiday we observe today is called “Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.” The juxtaposition of a man who betrayed his sacred honor in attempt to tear a nation apart to preserve an immoral institution with a man whose primary legacy and objective was the restoration of constitutionally guaranteed rights is grotesque. Nevertheless, King and Lee’s personal decisions illustrate how politics can reach from the individual to the global.

Martin Luther King, Jr. showing a medal given him.
It’s amazing how much Martin Luther King accomplished, and he didn’t even have a hashtag!

Lee’s actual decision may have been primarily decided by internal personal considerations, but—whether Lee realized or accounted for it—the decision to support or oppose state seccession was political on many level. Though Lee eventually couched his argument in lofty-sounding arguments about constitutionalism, the proximate cause of the America Civil War—if not always the reason for every individual’s involvement therein—was the desire to retain slavery as the economic organizing principal within the United States.

If you have seen even one photo of Robert E. Lee, it is this one.
A better “alternate history” premise than “what if the the South won” is “What if Robert E. Lee became a world famous Mall Santa?”

The institution of slavery had local, national and global political implications. In the early 19th Century, Southern American cotton was a vital supplier to English mills’ increasing demand. Industrialization increased English textile factories’ ability to produce fabric, and cotton, being so much more comfortable to wear than wool and cheaper than silk, was the king of fabrics and one of the most important exports in the United States.

At the same time, slavery was a organizing principal affectng most economies in the world, either directly when legal, or indirectly where slavery was illegal but slave-made imports remained common. While slavery’s primary impact within macro-economics was the ability to harvest cash crops, slaves in slaveholding areas were famously domestic servants, but many also worked as artisans or craftsmen. For small slaveholders—with a single or two slaves—the human “property” could account for substantial portions of a family’s wealth. Even in states or countries where slavery was forbidden, people benefitted directly from the slave system. Just as people are willing to buy iPhones produced in horrific conditions, people living in non-slave areas like New England, the United Kingdom or France (all of which had abolished slavery before the American Civil War) were often perfectly willing to wear the less itchy clothing, or cheaper tobacco slavery allowed.

Personally, Lee benefitted from slavery, too. He had dealt with obstinant slaves in the past. As a wealthy Northern Virginia land holder, even controlling much of George Washington’s former estate, Lee himself stood to lose most of his labor force, and he had taken stark measures to prevent its loss in the past. Even southern non-slave holding whites would have been acutely aware that their livelihood or lifestyle might come under attack if slaves were freed en masse, to compete in the labor market.

I will not speculate as to Lee’s true intentions, and frankly I do not care what he said to justify himself afterwards, but if he thought the retention of slavery—as a part of global politics—was a major issue in the world at the time, he would have been right. As the US’ power increased, slavery-through-cotton tied Britain to the US, but as the North’s economy industrialized, the US become more competitor with Britain than partner. The entire US, but especially the South, would have to fundamentally change to end slavery, costing rich and poor alike. If you let the complexity of the issue cloud your judgement, you might forget the fundamental question was about owning humans.

King was on almost the exact opposite end of the issue. The “Jim Crow” laws in the South put in place in the 1870s after reconstruction ended, institutionalized segregation and subjecation of Black Americans. While a different social structure than slavery, the Jim Crow south was not altogether different, and segregation was as much a part of the social structure of the south at the time as slavery had been 100 years prior. In fact, a perverse romanticism for slavery in popular culture Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Song of the South served as backdrop for segregation and racism, illustrating how  disconnected the American public was from its relatively recent history.

Ending segregation was unlikely to be as economically disruptive as slavery, and it seems likely that most businesses stood to benefit, but social amd political implications would be profound. Legally enforced segregation obviously harmed those discriminated against the most, but it imposed costs on businesses, too. Dollars spend the same from black and white wallets, and segregation was a constraint on the market. The individuals standing to lose the most were people less able to compete on a more equal footing in a larger labor and education market. It is probably no coincidence school desgregation was the first, and most hotly contested battlefield in civil rights, George Wallace barred the door of a University of Alabama and not the Piggly-Wiggly, and dum-dum’s tend to be more attracted to the various racial supremacist groups. Racial carve-outs are most attractive when the only thing you have going for you is your race.

The Civil Rights battle was vital to the Cold War, too. Failure to live up to democratic ideals was a powerful talking point for Communist and Soviet propagandists, at home and internationally. Lenin’s explanation of imperialism, reinterpreted only a little for a 3rd world lens, looks a lot like white people beating non-white people to get rich. White people literally beating non-white people in the US only helped reinforce the idea that America was simply an imperialist power, just like all the others.

Far more important than the propaganda points segregation allowed communists, was the actual division segregation created in the US. It is neither now, nor was it then, clear that a majority in the whole electorate would have supported segregation for long. On every issue, the status quo has an advantage, but segregation and “Jim Crow” were probably not tenable in the face of long term opposition, domestically, internationally and especially from civil rights organizations, especially if  opposition could acheive representation within the government.

To ensure segregation retained legal support in southern state government, segregationists and white supremacists used violence and terror to prevent potential adversaries from voting. The violence used to enforce segregationist views makes it untrue to say that southern Americans opposed integration, even though state governments often argued precisely that point. Martin Luther King and many civil rights activists were all southerners, too. Mississippi could only get away with establishing a “State Sovereignty Comissions”—a state supported organization with the explicit purpose of depriving a portion of its own citizens of their rights—because state government leaders knew they would never face black voters deprived of full franchise.

Groups like the Klan challenged more than civil rights: they challenged the unity and democratic political system of the country itself. When a faction within a democracy has a functioning paramilitary and monopoly of large government institutions, it raises the stakes on all politics. The immediate victims were, of course, the black americans living under Jim Crow, but segregationist policies effectively held the national Democratic Party hostage, and shut Republicans out of the “Solid South.” Perhaps one of the most bizarre demonstrations of how having a de facto Banana Republic within the national borders is the lengths to which actors had to go to get the first interracial kiss on television all out of fear of Southern opprobrium. While not a complete solution, establishing voting rights was a major, and necessary step towards ameliorating the problem. It is notable that only thirteen years after Alabama elected a governor who declared “…segregation forever!” the same state elected a legislature that named the freeway through Montgomery after Martin Luther King.

In terms of their position relative to global politics, Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr. are equivalent, but their choices distinguish them. The politics of both the Civil Right Era and the American Civil War were complicated, with considerations far beyond personal or local issues. It was unclear before slavery ended in the US how the changes slavery’s demise would affect the US’ relationship with Great Britain. With the USSR prowling throughout the developing world, and threatening democracy even in Europe, it was not clear how a push for Civil Rights would turn out.

The temptation for contemporaries of King and Lee, as now, was to argue some aspect of slavery, whether international relations or local politics, was too important to deal with the question at once. The UK directly supported the Confederacy and the Soviet Union tried to exploit civil rights discontent, the economic churn a peaceful abolition of slavery would have caused likely would have been very disruptive.

We revere Martin Luther King’s choices because he made moral choices, and we (should) revile Robert E. Lee’s choices, because he made immoral choices. Slavery and oath-breaking are wrong, and Lee knowingly and conciously broke his oaths to support a slave-owning system. In contrast, abridging constitutionally guaranteed rights through terrorism is also wrong, and Martin Luther King also knowingly and conciously opposed restriction on civil rights. Both choices shaped and were shaped by global politics, from top to bottom—it is hard to concieve of US divided politically or by race succeeding as it has—but global politics alone are insufficient reason to dictate the moral choice.

Heinrich Himmler looking super evil.
It is very rare that geopolitical adversaries will put a literal representation of evil in their official photos. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99621 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Even guided by a steel-strong moral lodestar is insufficient to successfully navigate straits of global politics. If we are ever so lucky to be choosing between an obviously moral and obviously immoral option, even if blessed with preternaturally strong dedication to moral behavior, moral outcomes are not guaranteed. While we should be eternally grateful to those like King, who used their moral compass to make the hard choices, many like him also had made the informed, perhaps even cynical calculations, that ensured the US emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, and the Civil War before it, strongerrather than a riven, divided failed state. Studying global politics may not guarantee success, but it certainly is more likely to help than pure luck.