The Radical Martin Luther King

Yes, another post on the ridiculous attempt by conservatives to claim Martin Luther King as their own when they savaged the man as a dangerous communist subversive when he was alive. Now several people are claiming that King was a Republican, without a shred of evidence. Politifact points to a couple of them:

Anyone driving the Interstate 240 beltway around Memphis will now see the new billboard at Getwell Road that proclaims “Martin Luther King Jr. Was A Republican. So Is Charlotte Bergmann. Charlotte Bergmann for Congress.”

Bergmann is a Republican candidate in the Democrat-rich 9th Congressional District now represented by Steve Cohen. She got a quarter of the vote in 2010 in the general election and, by all accounts, is doing more campaigning this year than two years ago…

Asked for her sources for the claim, Bergmann directed us to her website, which displays a 20-page newsletter of the National Black Republican Association that charts Republican Party efforts to advance Civil Rights from 1854 through the Eisenhower Administration and the 1957 Civil Rights Act and documents the segregated positions of prominent Democrats in the Jim Crow South. It concludes by saying, if King were alive today, he’d be a Republican.

She also pointed to a statement made by King’s niece, Alveda C. King, a founder of the group King for America: “My uncle, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during his lifetime, was a Republican.” Bergmann also said King “subscribed to Republican values” and that most black voters before 1960 associated themselves with the Grand Old Party — the Party of Lincoln — that passed the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution ending slavery and guaranteeing equal rights in the 19th century.

Yeah, that “before 1960” thing is kind of important. That was the start of the GOP’s southern strategy and when the Dixiecrats left the Democratic party and joined the Republican party because it was more in line with their racist, pro-segregation views. Political parties change over time. But even without that, it just isn’t true that MLK was a Republican and Politifact rates this claim as false.

Common Dreams has an article about King and the fact that he wasn’t just a leader for black civil rights, he was also strongly in favor of pretty much everything conservatives hate today. He loudly supported unions and was an advocate of Democratic socialism. He was also a vocal critic of the Vietnam war and of American imperialism in general, and was pro-choice and pro-gay rights.

These experiences led King to develop a more radical outlook. King supported President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty in 1964, but, like his friend and ally Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, King thought that it did not go nearly far enough. As early as October 1964, he called for a “gigantic Marshall Plan” for the poor — black and white. Two months later, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, he observed that the United States could learn much from Scandinavian “democratic socialism.” He began talking openly about the need to confront “class issues,” which he described as “the gulf between the haves and the have nots.”

In 1966 King confided to his staff:

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”…

King became increasingly committed to building bridges between the civil rights and labor movements. Invited to address the AFL-CIO’s annual convention in 1961, King observed, “The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who today attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.” In a 1961 speech to the Negro American Labor Council, King proclaimed, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” Speaking to a meeting of Teamsters union shop stewards in 1967, King said, “Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.”

King’s growing critique of capitalism coincided with his views about American imperialism. By 1965 he had turned against the Vietnam War, viewing it as an economic as well as a moral tragedy. But he was initially reluctant to speak out against the war. He understood that his fragile working alliance with LBJ would be undone if he challenged the president’s leadership on the war. Although some of his close advisers tried to discourage him, he nevertheless made the break in April 1967, in a bold and prophetic speech at the Riverside Church in New York City, entitled “Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break Silence.” King called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and linked the struggle for social justice with the struggle against militarism. King argued that Vietnam was stealing precious resources from domestic programs and that the Vietnam War was “an enemy of the poor.” In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), King wrote, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”

King, a conservative? Really? Not a chance.

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  • Pro gay rights? The Common Dreams article says:

    Like most Americans in his day, King was homophobic, even though one of his closest advisors, Bayard Rustin, was gay. But today King would undoubtedly stand with advocates of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage.

    Coretta Scott King said the same, many times– that MLK would support the modern cause of LGBT equality, I mean, not that he was a homophobe. So I certainly don’t doubt it, but there’s a significant distinction between “He would be pro gay rights today” and “He was pro gay rights.”

  • They should try Elridge Cleaver, who actually became a conservative republican…

  • cptdoom

    I am halfway through Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years and prior to 1960, I would think it very likely that King voted Republican, when he voted, and very well may have voted for Nixon in ’60 (I can’t remember if his actual vote is recorded in the book). His father was one of the African-Americans devoted to the party of Lincoln and King’s outreach to the Kennedy campaign in 1960 caused a bit of a rift between father and son. However, as Ed points out, that was about King’s last flirtation with Republicanism, and he was certainly never a Conservative in the modern sense.

  • bradleybetts

    That’s one thing I find very interesting about American politics; how the two parties essentially swiched positions. BAck in the day it was the Republicans who were the progressives, and the KKK alligned themselves with the Democrat party, right? How on earth did that situation become reversed to the point where the Democrats are the pro-equality progressives and the Rupublicans are the Conservative religious quasi-racist nutjobs?

  • @ Bradleybetts,

    Or as I like to phrase it, The party of Lincoln has become the party of the Confederacy.

  • ricko

    Things turn around when one party (in this case the Democrats) have to look at how things are and come to the conclusion that they have to change what they believe OR THEIR CURRENT MEMBERS will go away.

    Which explains why the Northern Democrats, and their union allies, turned the party to equal rights.

    And that explains how Republicans got turned against equal rights… Which is even more amazing.

  • The southern Democrats ate the Republican party from the inside after they switched.

  • Didn’t President Johnson say he lost the South for the Democrats by supporting civil rights?

  • How on earth did that situation become reversed to the point where the Democrats are the pro-equality progressives and the Rupublicans are the Conservative religious quasi-racist nutjobs?

    A large part of that was the result of FDR, the Depression, the New Deal, WW-II, and postwar reconstruction, all of which both vindicated and empowered the liberal/progressive coalition. And since the Republicans opposed pretty much all of that, they became the party of opposition to progress.

  • cptdoom

    @bradleybetts – If you look at the parties pre-1960, they both had conservative and progressive wings. The Southern Democrats – who were only Democrats because they loathed Lincoln – were no less conservative then than their descendants are now as Southern Republicans. During FDRs tenure in office, he was stymied on even considering going further on race relations because of the racism of the Southern Dems, many of whom were in positions of power in the Senate and House. In fact, after the 1940 election, FDR attempted to work with his opponent in that election, Wendell Wilkie, to create a truly Progressive Party by merging the progressive wings of both the Dems and the GOP (the press got wind of the proposed meeting, and it never happened).

    The shift you note likely began in 1948, when Strom Thurmond ran on the Dixiecrat platform, but really shifted in the late 1960s, when Nixon strategists realized they could siphon off Southern Dem votes by appealing to their racism (subtly of course). That movement was then magnified when the Reagan campaign aligned itself with both the racists and the evangelical conservatives.

  • lpetrich

    In reference to tommykey #5, the way I like to say it is that the Republican Party has become the party of Jefferson Davis, the only President of the Confederacy.