Reflecting on Martin Luther King’s teaching and William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade, Martin Sewell calls for moral clarity in confronting gun culture and other contemporary social enslavements.
Martin Sewell is a Family Lawyer specialising in Child Protection and Adoption and an Anglican Lay Reader. His work puts him in daily contact with the disadvantaged of society who experience the consequences of social policy the most acutely.
One of the major influences of children of the 1960’s, like myself, was
the Civil Rights Movement, and anyone who can remember the impact of
newsreel footage of the brutality endured to secure desegregation and
the vote for black Americans, will recall the moral outrage that led so
many of us to instinctively side with the underdog protesters.
It became the prototype for every other protest movement, from then to the present day. Its marches, songs, and placarded demonstrations were recycled to a myriad other causes until, as so often happens, style became the dominant partner over substance. We declared ourselves liberal, we carried the language and concepts from one cause to another and came to despise discrimination of all kinds, until perhaps the early foothills of political correctness began to make us wonder if this direction of travel was truly where we wanted to go.
Inevitably, the Civil Rights movement had a strong attraction for liberals, and attracted celebrity endorsement which enabled its moral imperative to be expropriated and later exported through the media to every other “progressive” movement thereafter. Those of us who have studied the movement, will know that there was, in fact, a deeply conservative foundation to this most iconic of liberal causes, and it is about time we reclaimed some of the moral high ground for the conservative values from which it stemmed.
Whilst everyone looks immediately to Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. it was his father Martin Luther King Snr who was the moral mainspring of the family. He was known as Daddy King. If you have not visited the churches where father and son preached, you may not appreciate how very low-key conservative their churches and communities were. Their soberly dressed congregations followed dignified services that were, and would be, instantly recognisable to anyone teleported from Worcester in the 1930s.
Daddy King’s startling early lesson for young men like his son was a trio of very conservative values. “Get yourself the vote, get yourself an education, and get yourself a mortgage.”
His son learnt to take as his starting point a similar cluster of inspirations: the wisdom of the American Constitution, the power of the scriptures, and putting his trust in non-violence and the goodwill it could engender from his white fellow citizens.
Now, it might be occurring to you, that these are some considerable distance from the current nostrums being offered the black community today. We might usefully ask whether they offer a better prospect of advancement than the currently favoured option which can be loosely described as “victimhood” and “dependency”.
The overwhelming virtue of the Civil Rights Movement was its refusal to accept victim status; slavery was too close. They did not want an excuse for degradation they wanted the dignity of equal opportunity. They did seek to exchange the impotence of bondage for the impotence of welfare dependency. The Kings had moved up the economic and social ladder and wanted to bring their people along.
Fast forward to UK 2007…
Gangster culture? – a valid lifestyle choice.
Educational curriculum? – how can we accommodate your preferred political narrative?
Marriage? – optional extra.
Religion? – best out of schools unless diluted into a cultural study.
Slavery ? What an opportunity for a victimfest!!! Have an apology – P.M. ? – fine! Archbishop of Canterbury? – take it as read. Her Majesty? Tricky, but we’ll see what we can do.
Daddy King and his son would be turning in their graves.
They knew that there was nothing wrong with their society which could
not be cured by what was right with it. That was why they harnessed the
principles of their faith to the ideals of their political heritage. It
enabled them to reach across the cultural divides and to draw onto
their side, Southern politicians like Lyndon Johnson who signed the
Civil Rights Act knowing that it would lose the South to his party for
a generation. There was bravery on both sides of the great divide.
In Britain, our determination appears to be to overlook the role of
conservative values in the advancement of race equality and the lifting
black communities from degradation.
White conservatives did not invent slavery. They did much to end it.
Christianity did contribute to slavery by not extending its abhorrence
to the non-Christian early enough, although I doubt that amidst this
year’s curriculum on slavery, many school children will be taught that
it was outlawed in England in 1102 at the Synod of Westminster, as a
result of the initiative of Archbishop Anselm.
The eminent black American educationalist Thomas Sowell has pointed
out, slavery was never a white European invention. It existed in such
diverse cultures as China, New Zealand, and Mexico. The trans-Atlantic
trade was fuelled by African inter-tribal wars, and the middlemen were
often Arab traders. The name slave comes from “slav” the frequent
source of Turkish slaves being the Balkans. North African slavers
regularly raided the Cornish coast in Elizabethan times.
The recognition of colonial slavery in English/American Law came via
17th Century litigation in Virginia in which one John Casor indentured
himself to Anthony Johnson for life and when he sought to resile from
the bargain, the “master” successfully sued for enforcement . This was
the first case to effectively recognise slavery in the colonies under
English Law Both plaintiff and defendant were black. I would hate to
be a descendant of Anthony Johnson when the reparation writs start
The start of its end, perhaps began with the 1772 Judgement of Lord
Mansfield in Sommersett’s case which established that no slave could be
landed on the British mainland without securing freedom. Lord
Mansfield, who incidentally had a black niece of whom he was
particularly fond, was described by Lord Macauley as “the father of
The Society for the Abolition of Slavery, founded by Thomas Clarkson,
was principally comprised of Quakers and Evangelical Christians.
There is thus a proud conservative heritage to be reclaimed and
proclaimed that may not easily see the light of day in today’s schools
and popular media.
Yet there is an important reason for wanting to do so.
If you were to go back to remind ourselves of the moral power of Martin
Luther King Jnr’s most famous speech, you will find a profoundly
important principle that has been too frequently overlooked. He dreamt
of a society where a person was “not judged by the colour of their
skin but by the content of their character.”
I have no doubt that Lord Mansfield held that principle and so too did
William Wilberforce, and Thomas Clarkson. Non-racist all, they, with
Dr King were ready to do something no liberal would ever dream of
doing today – “discriminate” and “ judge”. These were not to exercised
in a capricious or prejudiced way, but morally and absolutely.
Slavery, for them, was not something that was culturally and morally
relative and therefore permissible, despite having been embodied in
diverse human societies for Millennia. It was wrong. The effects of its
aftermath were wrong and needed to be changed using the “best” that
human society could devise – non violence, law, persuasion, and the
persuasive force of language.
And with what language did Dr King denounce it! If you read his
speeches it is immediately plain that he had no time for the
limitations of the patois of the plantation or the ghetto. He lifted
humble and sophisticated alike with a grasp of thousands of years of
Judeo-Christian ethics, expressed in the language of the King James
Bible. It was impossible to talk of the “inferior” negro faced with
such plain evidence of superlative moral focus.
The Kings were much closer to slavery and its aftermath than the young
men and women of South London today. Their solutions are no less
They would not have seen dependency on drugs, the State, or the gang,
as anything other than the exchange of one kind of servitude for
They would have judged moral relativism as a blind alley and stood up
for the timeless principles of their faith. They would have freed
liberals from their instinctive white guilt based upon a poor grasp of
history, perhaps quoting St John: “You shall know the truth and it
shall set you free.”
They would have urged young women to value themselves and to see that
they are worth more than the their role as in poverty as serial “baby
mothers” to indolent absent fathers.
They would have urged the poor to seek pride in good character before “bling”.
When they had freed the people from these modern shackles, no doubt
Martin Luther King Jnr would again have invoked the words of the old
spiritual: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we’re free
That is the conservative vision, and the liberal alternative is…?