“When a Hollywood performer, lacking distinction even as an actor [Ronald Reagan], 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.”
Dr. King on Ronald Reagan 1967
The article is a response to many other articles and Facebook comments I have seen painting Dr. King as a conservative. The comments normally center around a few points.
- King was registered as a Republican at the time of death
- King never endorsed Kennedy or Johnson
- King advocated for equality, so he would not be for Affirmative Action
King was not a conservative, and his writings prove such. All these points can be explained by a cursory reading of his work and common sense. I will take these points on individually in this blog post.
Why did King register as a Republican?
The obvious reason is King spent most of his formative years in the South and most Southern Democrats were Dixiecrats. It would make no sense for any southern black person to be part of the Democratic party. In the 1950s when Dr. King would have first been allowed to vote Republicans were amicable to Civil Rights.
The only Republican president Dr. King interacted with was Eisenhower. He said in the book Why We Can’t Wait that Eisenhower was sympathetic to his cause. However, his conservatism prevented him from making the radical change needed to move forward on Civil Rights. If the fundamental power structure does not change only small, local, incremental change can happen. Ultimately, conservatism was not conducive to Civil Rights.
Why didn’t Dr. King endorse Kennedy or Johnson?
In the book Why We Can’t Wait , Dr. King explains his relationship to Kennedy. He says he was grateful that Kennedy negotiated for his release from jail in 1960, but Kennedy was a young politician. King saw the Civil Rights Movement as new and fragile. Endorsing Kennedy could be dangerous if Kennedy turns on the movement. That is why he never endorsed Kennedy in 1960. In the same book, he says he would have supported Kennedy if he had lived until the next election.
Johnson began his political career as a staunch Dixiecrat. Kennedy picked him as a vice president to secure the southern vote. When Kennedy died most of black America was terrified because they did not trust Johnson to care about their interest.
Fortunately, Johnson had a change of heart after working closely with King and Kennedy. Again in Why We Cant Wait King says Johnson restored his hope in the white southerner. King said Johnson was genuinely connected to Civil Rights and was on the right track.
Johnson and King parted ways on the issue of Vietnam. King’s belief in non-violence extends to other countries. King was extremely vocal on the issue of Vietnam even though most of America saw his view as unpatriotic. So King did not endorse Johnson because King was to his left, not right.
Would King have supported Affirmative Action?
King talked at length in his writings about economic redress to black people. He reasoning was redressing the systematic oppression that has destroyed black people is no different from other forms of redress and redistribution. For example, federally subsidized mortgages that were solely given to whites was a way to redistribute wealth to poor people to make them middle class. The GI Bill was implemented because the state understood they had put their veterans in harm’s way and took away important earning years. Giving veterans health care, college tuition, and other advantages were needed to put them on par with others who did not suffer the hardship of war.
As part of his demands from the Birmingham campaign, the SCLC demand the department stores have a certain percentage of black salesmen. The non-discrimination hiring program extended to Birmingham industry. So King advocated and implemented an Affirmative Action program in his lifetime.
Would Dr. King have been a Democrat?
Dr. King deplored party politics. This is an excerpt from Why We Can’t Wait
Negroes have traditionally positioned themselves too far from the inner arena of political decision. Few other minority groups have maintained a political aloofness and nonpartisan posture as rigidly and as long as Negroes…For some time, this reticence protected the Negro from corruption and manipulation by political bosses. The cynical district leader directing his ignorant flock to vote blindly at his dictation is a relatively rare phenomenon in Negro life. The very few Negro political bosses have no gullible following.
In a press conference in the late 1960s King affirmed that he had no interest in politics. He saw his role as an outside agitator and politics would muddy the waters of his mission. The official stance of the SCLC was never to endorse a candidate.
Civil Rights was Dr. King’s political party. He would side with whichever party would advance the cause of Civil Rights. To have a hard stance concerning political party would be counterproductive. Any party can support or abandon the cause. Black people have to be independent.
Why Does This Matter?
It is essential that we as black people study our leaders in their own words. Many people within and outside our community have attempted to appropriate our leaders for their gain. The historical revisionism of Dr. King as a conservative or capitulater has caused us to discount his teachings. Dr. King had one of the most comprehensive understandings of social justice. Without his knowledge, we will be left to reinvent the wheel continually.
Houston Group Says Martin Luther King Was A Republican by M. Ashford-Grooms wwww.politifact.com HERE
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968. Why We Can’t Wait. New York :New American Library, 1967. Print.