Laying Claim to Dr. King’s Political Legacy

“Today we remember and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even today, on movie screens, his message still resonates and on the streets of our communities his example still leads us. I am proud that the Democratic Party carries on Dr. King’s fights: to encourage equality of opportunity for all Americans, to guarantee that each voice is heard at the ballot box and to fight threats to the franchise, to combat poverty by supporting a living wage, and to ensure equal treatment under the law. This holiday is an opportunity to keep marching forward, committing ourselves to a Day of Service, and bringing us closer to realizing Dr. King’s dream.” Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC Chair, DNC website


“Today we honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His vision, his leadership, and his determination helped America overcome the injustices of segregation, and because of him, we are a better nation. Dr. King called on Americans to live up to our founding principles, and he called us to be a more equal society. His monument now stands in Washington, D.C., as a reminder of his place in history—and a call to continue his work fighting prejudice and hate wherever it exists. Across the country today, Americans will pause to honor Dr. King, many taking part in a day of service to others. However we mark this day, we must continue to work every day toward a society that offers unlimited opportunity to all Americans.” Reince Priebus, RNC Chairman, RNC Website

“We don’t just remember Dr. King today, we give thanks for him. His stirring words still echo across this country, reminding us to stand tall for the cause of freedom and justice. It’s my prayer that America will continue to draw strength and inspiration from Dr. King, his sacrifice and his faith.” Sharon Day, RNC Co-Chairman, RNC Website


“’Most people don’t talk about the fact that Martin Luther King was a Republican.’

“That’s a quote from Ada Fisher, a Republican National Committeewoman from North Carolina, that was published without qualification or correction this week by ABC News.

“Fisher is wrong on two fronts. First, many people talk about the ‘fact’ that King was a Republican. It is asserted incessantly by conservatives on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet, especially in the lead up to today’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The claim is most prominently advanced by King’s niece, Republican activist Alveda King. Over the years, conservative groups have purchased billboardsmaking the claim.

“Second, Martin Luther King Jr. was not a Republican. Or a Democrat.

“King was not a partisan and never endorsed any political candidate. In a 1958 interview, King said ‘I don’t think the Republican party is a party full of the almighty God nor is the Democratic party. They both have weaknesses. . . . And I’m not inextricably bound to either party.’”

These are the opening paragraphs of a post by Judd Legum to the ThinkProgress blog.

The rest of the post includes a lengthy comment made by Dr. King during the 1964 presidential election, in which he expressed his concerns about the GOP’s “Southern strategy,” which clearly included appeals to racist attitudes:

“The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding at the Cow Palace of the KKK with the radical right. The ‘best man’ at this ceremony was a senator whose voting record, philosophy, and program were anathema to all the hard-won achievements of the past decade.

“Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, 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 Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.”

Indeed, according to King biographer Nick Koltz, King campaigned nationwide for Johnson in 1964, while “maintaining only a thin veneer of nonpartisanship,” and he called Johnson’s victory “a great victory for the forces of progress and a defeat for the forces of retrogress.”

Despite his respect for Johnson on domestic issues, King was very critical of Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War and was dismissive of Ronald Reagan’s hawkish stance on the war, commenting: “When a Hollywood performer, lacking distinction even as an actor, can become a leading war hawk candidate for the Presidency, only the irrationalities induced by a war psychosis can explain such a melancholy turn of events.”

Yet, according to another King biographer, David Garrow, King respected Richard Nixon and held Nelson Rockefeller in “high regard.” It is notable that both were Liberal Republicans.

The attempt by Republicans to claim Dr. King as one of their own is based largely on one of the most dramatic shifts in demographics in the history of American politics. Most African-Americans were Republicans from the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery to the depths of the Great Depression. On the other hand, from the end of Reconstruction through the 1930s, the South had become a Democratic stronghold—simply because the Republican party was so closely identified with Lincoln, with the Southern defeat in the Civil War, and with the emancipation of African-Americans. But the progressive policies that defined the New Deal began gradually to move African-Americans toward the Democratic party, starting with those who had migrated to northern industrial centers in the 1910s and 1920s, and the Democratic party then began to move toward a more progressive stance of Civil Rights. This movement accelerated in the two decades following the Second World War, and so it would not be unusual for African-Americans and racially-motivated White voters to have similarly ambiguous party identifications in the period from 1945 through 1975.

So, given the race-baiting that has accompanied much of the criticism of President Obama (see my earlier post “Hating a Black President Isn’t Necessarily Racist” at, billboards such as the following seem willful, ignorant, and/or cynical distortions of the truth:

MLK Billboard 1


MLK Billboard 2

MLK Billboard 3



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