Was MLK Jr. Really a Republican?

Civil rights leaders, black Democrats, and Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele went ballistic when the they heard a woman in a 60 second radio ad say that "Dr. King was a Republican." The ad, which is bankrolled by the National Black Republican Association, is purportedly running on several Baltimore radio stations.

At first glance, the ad is a cheap political shot that stretches political lunacy far past the outer limit. But is it? The ad is not the first time that Republicans, and more specifically Republican conservatives, have claimed Martin Luther King, Jr. as one of their own.

The debate over whether King has anything in common with the GOP has raged since the 1980s. Republicans grabbed at King's famed line in his "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 in which he called on Americans to judge individuals by the content of their character and not the color of their skin to prove that he'd be on their side against affirmative action. Supporters of affirmative action loudly protest that this deliberately distorted the spirit and intent of King's words. They are both right.

During the fierce wars over affirmative action in the 1990s, King's words were shamelessly used to justify opposition to affirmative action. Yet, there is enough paradox and ambivalence in the few stray remarks that King uttered on the issue to give ideological ammunition to liberals and conservatives. In several speeches and articles in the 1960s, King did not demand that the government and corporations create special programs or incentives exclusively for blacks but to the disadvantaged of all races. He vaguely called for the government and corporations to increase spending for jobs, skills training, education and public works.

With the passage of the civil rights bill in 1964 King realized that ending legal segregation wasn't enough. Integrating a motel or lunch counter did not provide jobs, improved housing, and better schools for the black poor. These were stubborn and intractable problems that required massive spending on new social programs by government and business.

King felt that the bigger problem for blacks and whites was the disappearance of thousands of industry jobs to automation. He sensed that jobs were a volatile issue that could inflame blacks and whites. He claimed that black and white workers suffered equally when jobs were lost and tactfully called on labor to fight for jobs for all. But in those days affirmative action was seen as a tool to prod employers not simply to hire and promote the disadvantaged of all races, as King insisted, but blacks. If that happened, King almost certainly knew that this would leave many whites out in the economic cold.

King's debatable ambiguity on affirmative action was only one issue that Republicans manufacture common cause with him on. Starting with Reagan, Republican presidents slowly and grudgingly have realized that they can wring maximum political mileage out of King's legacy. They have recast him in their image on civil rights, and bent and twisted his oft times public religious Puritanism on morals issues to justify GOP positions in the values wars that they wage with blacks, Democrats and liberals. 

But that wouldn't be possible if some of King's pronouncements did not parallel the GOP's positions on crime, marriage, the family and personal responsibility. Republicans have carefully cobbled bits and pieces from King's speeches and writings during the 1950s and early 1960s together on values issues to paint a King that is anti-big government, welfare, black crime, and an advocate of thrift, hard work, and temperance. This is not a completely politically skewered picture of King. In those speeches and writings he took the moral high ground and lectured blacks on the value of hard work, the importance of setting personal goals, and striving to develop good character.

In countless speeches in the 1950s, he mingled the demand for civil rights, voting rights, and the government clampdown on racial violence, with a forceful call for blacks to practice thrift, self-help, King realized that government programs meant little if fathers weren't in the home, and he railed against the peril of family breakdown. This was a major social problem that civil rights leaders either ignored or downplayed. King again strongly emphasized values training, discipline, hard work, and the reduction of family violence as the key to resolve the family crisis. That crisis increasingly caught the policy attention of liberal and conservative academics and government officials.

In numerous speeches, even into the early 1960s, King continued to stress personal responsibility, economic self-help, strong families, and religious values as goals that blacks should strive to attain.

While King can never be considered a political conservative, the snippets of conservative thinking in his musings on the black family, economic uplift, and religious values blend easily with the social conservatism of many blacks. In the decades after his murder, it has blended just as easily into the GOP's prescription for black ills. And that evidently is more than enough for black Republicans to say he'd be a big player on the GOP team.

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