LOS ANGELES, May 2, 2013 — For a while now I have been operating under the belief that Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the greatest American of the 20th century, was a Republican, as were many black people were in this country until the late sixties and early seventies. I read this in many places and it seemed logical given black history in the GOP that he would have been. However, it is probably not the case that Reverend King was a Republican.
Being a Republican and a black Republican myself, a part of me sort of wishes that he were. Given his station in the south, the positive history of black Republicanism in the south and the racist regimes of southern Democrats, it seemed natural to me that he would be a Republican.
But the only clear source that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican is the testimony of his niece Alveda King to that effect. Alveda has claimed that her uncle was a Republican for years, until recently when she seems to have admitted that she never had any hard evidence for that claim and no longer stands by it. Thanks, Alveda. It has been Alveda’s declaration that King was a Republican that has led to the claim being repeated, mostly by Republicans, in so many quarters, but it now seems that that claim was without basis.
Was King a Democrat? It’s sort of hard to say this. Dr. King was always deliberately non-partisan, at one point writing: “I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both—not the servant or master of either.” That is why it is hard for us to answer this question.
Nevertheless it is quite possible that King may have registered as a Republican at one time. His father was a Republican, after all, and it was hard to be anything but a Republican in the south as an African-American because Democrats wouldn’t let you vote. King wrote in 1956 during the Dwight Eisenhower-Adlai Stevenson contest that, while he was undecided between the two, “In the past I always voted the Democratic ticket.” It is well known that Dr. King did support John Kennedy in 1960 and, given that he grew up during the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt when blacks first began voting Democrat, it is imminently believable while open to voting Republican, King tended to support Democrats, at least on the national level.
Republican or Democrat, King was a liberal (in those days the terms “liberal” and “conservative” were not so obviously synonymous with “Democrat” and “Republican” as they are today). He was a staunch ally of the labor movement, an anti-war individual (possibly an absolute pacifist), an intellectual proponent of the concept of affirmative action (sorry Glenn Beck; read My Trip to the Land of Ghandi) and of course was the leader of the integration movement in America which, at the time, was considered the liberal position.
King was religious in his political rhetoric it is true, but even so it would be hard to equate him with modern evangelical conservatives, supporting as he did the Supreme Court ruling of 1963 banning state-sponsored prayer in public schools on the grounds that “In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom?” No, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a liberal, if a Republican at all than a Republican in name only, and given the historical record it is a little delusional for Republicans and particularly conservatives to claim him as their own.
Does the fact that King was not a Republican diminish my opinion of Dr. King? Not one bit. Does the fact that he was not likely a Republican make me less happy to be a Republican? No, not at all. I have a different view of economics than King had, and that’s okay. Yet I also see that his liberalism of the 1960s is not entirely similar to that of the 21st century.
In some respects he was conservative by today’s standards. His political mission was explicitly rooted in faith and the concept of absolute moral truth. Though he was aggressive in using the governmental system to right the wrongs of society he was also a critic of government policies which he saw as undermining the family through disincentivizing marriage (a constant conservative theme today).
It matters little. King transcended partisanship, and even ideology. He was not concerned with right or left, but with truth alone. Both sides today would do well to be likewise.
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