Invoking King

The Republicans' love fest with Martin Luther King, Jr., grows deeper every year.

It started with President Reagan. Reagan did everything he could to scuttle the King national holiday bill but signed it only after it was clear that the bill would pass with or without his backing. Reagan could have easily vetoed the bill, even though he knew Congress would likely override him. That would have curried favor with unreconstructed white bigots and King-haters, and enhanced Reagan's reputation as a man that could not be bullied into signing a bill he didn't believe in. Despite his deep doubts, in the end, Reagan may have felt that King was worthy of the honor.

Peter Robinson, the speechwriter who drafted Reagan's address at the bill-signing ceremony, said the words and sentiments he inserted in Reagan's speech -- "dignity," "equality," "liberty," "democracy," " freedom," and " fulfilling the promise of America" -- were things that Reagan could easily understand, despite the political gulf between the men. Reagan dug deep into his own fundamental beliefs and values to ultimately come to grips with King's fight and the value of King's life.

Reagan did something else that showed a true sensitivity toward King. Coretta Scott King -- MLK, Jr.'s widow -- was stung by Reagan's quip, a month before he signed the bill, about King being a possible Communist sympathizer. He quietly called her and apologized. At a King observance the year after the holiday was officially celebrated in 1986, Reagan seemed to speak from the heart when he denounced racial bigotry and discrimination.

The battle over the King bill, both within the GOP and within Reagan himself, gave another glimpse into the conflicting political thinking in the GOP regarding the importance of King in future plans. Reagan's successor, Bush Sr., understood that the GOP had to shave off the cruder edges of its divisive racial rhetoric and adopt a softer approach to racial issues in order to bump up GOP support among black voters and succeed in grooming a new breed of black leaders to embrace conservative politics.

If he were alive, King would almost certainly oppose GOP economic policies, which squeeze the poor. Yet he's still black America's authentic hero and the ideal choice to accomplish the GOP's goal of attracting more blacks -- a goal that's sputtered in the wake of the heat Bush took post-Katrina. Still, there is much in King's background and social philosophy that Republicans have repackaged to suit their aims.

For two decades before the King holiday flap, he fascinated Republican presidents and conservatives. Eisenhower and Nixon flattered, cajoled and wooed King to get his support for their mild civil rights legislation and to put a damper on protests in the South. He was the one civil rights leader that the GOP might gingerly court to score political points with black voters. In a perverse, backhanded way, Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. owed much of their political success to King. The civil rights movement fueled the white backlash that transformed the Republican Party in the South from a political nonentity into a political behemoth. More then any other civil rights leader, King was the emblem of that movement.

The GOP also capitalized on King's name to reimagine itself as the party of diversity and inclusion. Bush Jr. moved shrewdly to adopt King's mantle: In January 2004, he placed a wreath on King's tomb on the official celebration of his birth. He has hailed King in public messages on this holiday every year.

To defend their opposition to race-based programs, conservatives have grabbed at the famous line in King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech, when he called on Americans to judge individuals by the content of their characters, not the color of their skins. This is not a total distortion. While King continually demanded that government do more to aid black poor, and he likely would have been an advocate of affirmative action, he also demanded that the black poor do more to help themselves. In numerous speeches, he stressed personal responsibility, self-help, strong families, and religious values as goals that blacks should strive to attain. King's solution to many of the big-ticket race and class problems that plague America was a conflicting mix of idealism and hard-nosed pragmatism.

Republican presidents have invoked King's name for good reason. He is still the man that evokes nostalgia, passion and instant identification in the fight for racial justice and equality in America. And Republican conservatives still tout him as a man that might have stood with them on certain issues. They'll do it again this holiday.

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