Misremembering Martin Luther King


Mr. Balto is a graduate student in History and African-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A debt is owed to Brian Hamilton for his important revision considerations.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn’t been taken from us 41 years ago, one can only imagine the way his head would spin at popular and political misremembrances of his legacy and memory.  I thought of this most recently while driving outside of Milwaukee, when I found myself doing a triple-take at one of the billboards commissioned for the National Black Republican Association’s (NBRA) “Martin Luther King was a Republican” ad campaign.  The reductively ahistoric message on display perhaps should not be surprising in our current era of seemingly endless, offensively shallow political posturing and manipulation.  Nonetheless, this seems over-the-top. (For the NBRA’s campaign video on this issue, click here.)  At its base level, the NBRA’s claim can be said to be true: King did, history tells us, emerge from the Republican Party to become the preeminent figurehead of the civil rights movement.  Yet that assertion contains only the most rudimentary kernel of historical truth, and it deserves dissection.

Firstly, party labels mean little when applied retroactively beyond the last thirty to forty years, a period in which both of the two major American parties completed some important positional shifts that began in the early twentieth century on many ideological and policy issues.  These political transitions within the parties (transitions which, a friend crucially and correctly points out, are never fully completed, and rarely occur wholesale in diametric opposition across party lines) were notable across the political spectrum, but particularly—and most relevant to our purposes here—along racial and socio-economic frontiers.  Though it’s true that the Republican Party of the post-Civil War United States was the party of liberal advocacy (indeed, even radical in the sense of the “Radical Reconstruction” of the 1860s and ‘70s South), one doubts that Republicans of that era would find much in common with today’s GOP that has gone to such extreme lengths to suspend and dismantle the promising victories toward social and economic equality that the civil rights movement achieved.  (This is, after all the, the party that brought us, among other things: hyper-incarceration of the nonwhite poor; the revocation of improved-opportunity efforts such as affirmative action and minority-owned business set-asides; taxation plans that robbed American cities of their economic base; and the exacerbation of the American wealth gap, with those at the lowest rung of the economic ladder sacrificed at the neoliberal altar.) 

In the hundred-odd year interregnum between the Radical Republicans and the New Right, Republican politics in regard to racial and economic justice shifted dramatically: gone was the avowed interest in aid to the underprivileged, replaced by a free-market (il)logic rooted in a devastating, neoliberal ethic of “bootstrap” agency and opportunity.  At its most extreme, this shift was exemplified in the political career of Strom Thurmond, who moved from Democrat to Dixiecrat to Republican as party ideologies in reference to civil rights and an equitable social contract changed.  (It was largely the adoption of a civil rights plank by the Democratic Party in the prelude to the 1948 presidential election that spurred Thurmond to rescind his party membership.) Indeed, it was often in direct pandering to racist ideologies that party politics were formed, most notably evidenced by Richard Nixon’s racially-coded “Southern Strategy” in his efforts to win the presidency.  Thus appears a picture of a Republican Party molding itself—and being carefully and discriminatively shaped by public and party-leader opinion—in an increasingly regressive fashion in terms of race and racism as the twentieth century wore on. Therefore, to leave uninterrogated the assertion that the King born in 1929 into a Republican family (during an era when Republicans could still stake a claim to the memory of Lincoln and emancipation, and when the Democratic Party, for many blacks, persisted in memory as the party of the Ku Klux Klan) held the same Republican political ideologies as the King assassinated in 1968 (a wildly different era in which Republicans had not only turned their back on the majority of African-America, but also were waging war on efforts toward government-supported equal rights), is to deny the massive change that the meaning of that label underwent and, bizarrely, to also forget the ideological history of the “Grand Old Party.”

Yet, one doesn’t even need extreme examples to see the tides of change in this regard: it can be seen simply enough in African-American voting patterns, which have swung markedly toward Democrats since the middle of the twentieth century.  Largely, this has been a swing wrought by the Republican Party’s own doing: the racial coding implicit in many of the New Right’s political initiatives—wars on affirmative action and nonviolent crime (drugs, predominantly), what amounted to a war on the poor as part-and-parcel of Reaganomics, and the expansion of the carceral state, to name a few—finished the job of alienating African-Americans that had begun in the preceding decades.  The very fact that the NBRA feels compelled to attempt this manipulative takeover of King’s legacy is testament to the fact that Republicans have—for the most part, and with good reason—lost the black vote.

In fact, if one assumes that the corollary to the NBRA “MLK was a Republican” campaign is an unspoken avowal that “MLK was not a Democrat,” the latter would arguably be a more compelling representation, both at the time of King’s assassination, and if we are attempting to grasp the meaning of his legacy in relation to our own time.  Within the confines of the two-party dominance of the 1950s and 60s, King rarely made any sort of appeals or grounded any struggles too deeply in a political ideology creditable to either the Republican or Democratic parties.  He chose, rather, to push both parties from the left with appeals to morality, equality, human rights, and social justice—and was rewarded with palpable feelings of hatred from leaders of both parties.  Indeed, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, King attempted to force presidential hands on matters of social equality and justice, and frustrated the ambivalent attitudes toward all of them in his efforts.  Though our triumphalist and revisionist history of the civil rights era today includes a mirage depicting government actors eventually realizing the self-evident injustice of the American racial caste system, it would be more accurate to say that King, his fellow civil rights and Black Power leaders, and those at the grassroots realized the achievements that they did—with precious few exceptions— in spite of, rather than because of, those government actors.  Political leaders’ resistance to King extended to many broader American publics, and even to those within civil rights circles: when he eventually spoke out against the Vietnam War (“If America’s soul becomes poisoned,” one example reads, “part of the autopsy must read Vietnam”), King was condemned from a myriad of political directions, including from some of those who had been closest to him in previous struggles. 

Today, when the NBRA invokes the ahistoric image of King as a devout Republican, it stands as such a wildly unrealistic notion that—were it not such a profound misappropriation of his legacy—it would seem laughable.  In fact, that neither of today’s political parties can stake a credible claim to carrying the legacy of King’s politics is a fundamental reality that members of either should be able to realize with minimal self-reflection.  The iconography of American triumph suspends King in a very particular time, place, and condition: with arms outstretched before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, leading a people down the road toward a dream rooted in American ethics and promised by American politics.  Yet, omitted in this vision we perpetuate of King are his radical ideologies and condemnations of the moral failure of American government.  One doubts that the MLK who called for a “radical reconstruction of society” to fix “America[‘s]…interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism,” would be much in allegiance with a Democratic president who advocates social justice through health care while disavowing the possibility of de- and reconstructing a broken system; even less so with Republicans who unashamedly put profits before people and attempt to shout down—both literally and figuratively—the debate over health care that would save or improve thousands upon thousands of lives domestically, yet harbor no qualms about funneling billions toward destroying or ending similar numbers of lives overseas.

King the radical labor advocate (he was, lest we forget, assassinated while in Memphis helping the city’s sanitation workers in their demands for better pay and working conditions); King the radical anti-war critic; King the radical anti-capitalist…King the radical anything is simply not a notion that fits into how we wish to commemorate the civil rights era, for the very reason that it implies that there was—and is—more work to be done than desegregating institutions and ensuring voting rights.  The radical reconstruction of American society that King saw necessary has yet to commence, and within the schema of the modern American two-party system, his ideologies are barely represented within the political discourse.  Until they are willing to reckon with the real legacies of King and consider his radicalism, both Republicans and Democrats would do well to refrain from claiming him as one of their own.

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Maarja Krusten - 10/7/2009

Interesting article. The 1960s was a time of political transition for a number of notables, not just Martin Luther King. For a good article about Jackie Robinson by John Vernon, one of my former colleagues at the U.S. National Archivesn and Records Administration (NARA), see
John did some of his research while I still was employed by NARA's then Nixon Presidential Materials Project. Some of the material he drew on came from my searches of the Nixon materials.

John writes of Robinson, "Initially he was high on Richard Nixon and campaigned for the Vice President in 1960 against John Kennedy after Hubert Humphrey, whom he originally supported, dropped out of the race for the Democratic Party's nomination. Yet by 1968, Jackie grew disappointed with what he viewed as Nixon's tepid stance on civil rights and chose to campaign actively against him. In April 1972 a now much-subdued Robinson wrote a Nixon White House deputy that in retrospect he believed that Presidents only engaged in 'smoke screen' deceptions to trick blacks into believing that there was official support for obtaining legitimate racial aims."

As to Nixon's Southern Strategy, historians need to distinguish between his different political position in the Presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972. (Full disclosure: not only did I work with the then largely secret Nixon tapes as an employee of the National Archives between 1976 and 1990, I worked on Nixon’s campaign as a high school student in Maryland in 1968. It's worth noting that in a mock election in 1968 in my school in Prince Georges County, a suburb on Washington, DC, George Wallace came in first, Nixon, on behalf I spoke to the student body, came in second, and Hubert Humphrey third.)

In 1968, Nixon ran as a law and order candidate, one who promised stability and peace to a country beset by rising crime rates and what many voters saw as great domestic turmoil on many fronts. Alabama Governor George Wallace, who ran as a third party candidate, threatened to take away some votes which otherwise might have gone to Nixon. In fact, Wallace carried more Southern states -- five -- in 1968 than did Nixon. Of course, Nixon beat Humphrey and Wallace in a close election.

In 1972, as recently released records show, Nixon initially benefited from his behind the scenes efforts to persuade Wallace, through various means, not to run as a third party candidate. For a number of reasons, Wallace decided to enter the Democratic primaries in 1972, where he did not threaten Nixon's re-election chances, rather than running again as the American Independence Party candidate and forcing another 3-way election. Of course, Wallace’s political fortunes were affected by Arthur Bremer's attempt on his life in April of 1972.

Given the political situation and the turmoil, it isn’t so easy to decode Nixon’s Southern Strategy or his actions in office. As James Rosen illustrates so well in his excellent 2008 biography of John Mitchell, _The Strong Man_, to understand the Nixon administration’s actions you have to take into account the Attorney General’s famous words to a group of civil rights activists, “Watch what we do, not what we say.”

Republican columnist Kathleen Parker wrote in a column published in the Washington Post on August 5, 2009 that “Republicans have been harvesting Southern votes for decades from seeds strategically planted during the civil rights era. When Lyndon B. Johnson predicted in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act meant the South would go Republican for the next 50 years, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie.

A telling anecdote recounted by Pat Buchanan to New Yorker writer George Packer last year captures the dark spirit that still hovers around the GOP. In 1966 Buchanan and Richard Nixon were at the Wade Hampton Hotel in Columbia, S.C., where Nixon worked a crowd into a frenzy: “Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, ‘burned the paint off the walls.’ As they left the hotel, Nixon said, ‘This is the future of this Party, right here in the South.’”

Do historians know for sure what lay behind the rhetoric about patriotism and law and order in that meeting in 1966 described by Buchanan? No. Some of it may have reflected benign qualities such as nationally oriented (rather than regional) patriotism, support for the Vietnam War, and concern about rising crime rates. But some of it may have come from much darker places. That this was the case is not the sort of thing people t4end to admit.

Yet the meeting with Nixon in 1966 was a mere year after John Lewis and scores of other black marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. If you study the civil rights movement, you can see that a lot of the rhetoric in the South in support of segregation during the late 1950s and early 1960s centered on preserving the “Southern way of life” and achieving “peace” and “tranquility” and civil order through segregation of the races. Powerful Southern Democrats in Congress played a key role in preventing robust civil rights legislation from passing the Congress during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. That I greatly admire the courage of Lewis and some of the Freedom Riders and other Movement participants in direct action in the South during the 1960s does not mean I regret my youthful support for RN in 1968. But on civil rights, as an adult student of the Presidency, I recognize that LBJ acted with more courage than did Nixon. We'll never know what Nixon
might have done, had Wallace not emerged as a national force in 1968.

Steven Louis Engber - 10/6/2009

Preoccupation with the Hallmark-type brand of MLK, I'm afraid, is a banal critique. All of our legends, religious and secular, modern and classical, were as highly flawed as one might expect any hyper-inflated ego determined to transcend his moment to be.

Donald Wolberg - 10/5/2009


Many thanks for the reference. I will certainly look at it. I have long been troubled by how forgotten Mr. Abernathy is these days, as are others, and the less than dignified behavior of the King family.


Simon Balto - 10/5/2009

Dear Mr. Wolberg:

Thanks for the comment. You may find Harvard Sitkoff's recent work, "King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop," useful in addressing the "selectiveness" that you're talking about. He provides a significantly nuanced view on King the man and the leader, complete with both triumphs and flaws (both of the improprieties that you refer to above are addressed within the book).


Donald Wolberg - 10/5/2009

Of some concern to historians must be the record of King as a plagerist, documented in significant studies, but apparently selectively ignored. Of concern, of course is the plagerism by King of significant portions and themes of his doctoral dissertation, also documented in published work and apparently accepted as demonstrated. Of concern as well are the published accounts of King's other rather sad "propensities" noted in print by King associate Ralph Abernathy. If history is to be a realm of scholarship, ignoring obvious truths mislead and pervert the goals of of that scholarship.