Every January, around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some Republican will try to claim King’s legacy.
“Martin Luther King was a Republican” posts have made their way around Facebook while some nobody Republican strategist named Jennifer Kerns penned a column by the same title. Gun advocate Larry Ward recently made the asinine statement that Gun Appreciation Day honors the legacy of Dr. King.
Why do conservatives want to claim King as one of their own?
It goes back to one single line in the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The right has seized upon it to offer up King as an anti-affirmative action conservative hero.
Of course, anyone who has read King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” knows King wrote about his support for affirmative action-type policies. He reiterated that support in a 1965 Playboy magazine interview.
As for King being a Republican, this appears to have come from his niece Alveda King, an anti-gay, anti-choice activist who spoke at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in 2010. Martin Luther King Jr. III, King’s oldest son, disputes her claim. According to published reports, Alveda King also claimed the late Rosa Parks, who was on the board of Advocates for Planned Parenthood, was a symbol for the pro-life movement.
Now King was open to voting for a Republican. In a 1956 letter to a supporter, he wrote: “I am of the impression that the Negro voters will go largely for the Democratic Party. I haven’t fully decided which candidate I will vote for. In the past I have always voted the Democratic ticket.”
He usually didn’t endorse candidates because he wanted to be able to pressure both parties. However, in “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King,” edited by Clayborne Carson, King blasts 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s positions on civil rights and economic issues saying, “. . . 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 Sen. Goldwater and his philosophy.”
While he was alive he was derided as a communist and socialist (sound familiar?). Ronald Reagan, who reluctantly signed legislation approving the King holiday, referred to him as a “near communist.”
If King is suddenly a conservative icon, why haven’t his colleagues Andrew Young, Joseph Lowery, John Lewis and Jesse Jackson been embraced and lionized as well?
It’s important that we resist these attempts to co-opt Dr. King’s legacy by people to whose beliefs he would be adamantly opposed. Beyond that, this country needs to finally look at who Martin Luther King Jr. was after the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
King was blasting war and militarism and preaching about the poor and income inequality. The things Dr. King was addressing at the end of his life are still the most pressing relevant domestic issues today.
I’m glad that folks of all races and political beliefs embrace Martin Luther King Jr. as a great American. But we can’t allow history to be rewritten in the process. Peace.
Kelvin Wade is a writer/author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.