Rumor: Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican

A controversial claim by a GOP group is perpetuated online, despite a lack of evidence

UNCONFIRMED: Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican

During the 2012 election a conservative group in Houston put up a billboard stating, in no uncertain terms, that Martin Luther King Jr. “was a Republican!” The billboard's claim was the same one argued by King’s niece Alveda King and has been cited as recently as two weeks ago by the Washington Times and the blog Fox & Hounds. The claims of King’s supposed GOP membership runs into a major fault, however, in that there is no actual evidence that King ever voted Republican or supported a Republican candidate for office. In fact, most objective evidence points to the opposite conclusion, and Alveda King now tells MSN News that she no longer supports the opinion of her uncle as a Republican.

Meanwhile, Clayborne Carson, Stanford professor, King biographer and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, tells MSN News that the billboard’s claims have no basis in reality.

Origins of claim

When the group RagingElephants.org put up the billboard in Houston, they claimed their evidence was based on statements from Alveda King, who had long argued that her uncle was a Republican, despite having no documentation or voting records to prove her contention. Alveda argued her case that King was a Republican based mainly on her uncle’s strong religious faith, noting Republican opposition to abortion rights and King’s stated support of people “from the womb to the tomb.”

“The Republican Party historically has supported the rights of the oppressed,” Alveda King says in a video supporting RagingElephants.org. “During the time of slavery many of the abolitionists were Republicans. Today we have another issue that is affecting the lives and freedom of many of Americans: those are the little babies, the preborn. Dr. King said ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’"

Four years after first stating her belief that her uncle was a Republican, Ms. King, who works as a an outreach minister with the Roman Catholic pro-life group, Priests for Life, now tells MSN News that she no longer supports such a claim.

“My uncle never publicly proclaimed a position on his belonging to a party,” Ms King says. “...My uncle once said we need to live together as brothers or perish as fools, and I think arguments over which party someone is in is divisive.”

Ms. King goes to say she considers her uncle to be akin to the Rev. Billy Graham who she says has avoided political labels, while still being a force in public advocacy. She says she has no problem with others speculating on her uncle’s politics, but that she will no longer take part in it.

“I’m for freedom of opinion, I won’t go around tell people what to say or tell people what not to say, I just want to promote love, unity -- that's my message.”

Evidence supports opposite conclusion

Stanford’s Carson says King’s partisan leanings were rarely present in public and that the civil-rights leader actively avoided endorsing one party or the other. That said, King’s positions on a range of issues, from civil rights to economic philosophy to foreign affairs were largely liberal, Carson says.

“[King] was reluctant to express his partisan leanings during his lifetime,” Carson told MSN News.  “At that time it wasn’t exactly clear which party was more pro-civil rights: the Democrats were kind of tied to the segregation issue, but the Republicans were generally more conservative on race issues... The only time he took a stand was the 1964 election when he opposed Barry Goldwater. My strong feeling is based on the evidence we have and that is that he was to the left of the Democratic Party. He was a critic of capitalism. There is ample evidence of his critique of capitalism. Why would anyone believe if he was to the left of the Democrats he would be a Republican?”

Asked if King were alive today whether he would have supported Democrats or Republicans, Carson says he has little doubt the civil-rights leader would “have followed the lead of nearly every black leader” and supported the Democratic Party.

A changed Republican Party

The Republican Party of the late 1960s and early 1970s underwent a drastic change when future Republican President Richard Nixon and Republican Sen. Goldwater implemented what became known as the “Southern Strategy,” a process of courting Southern white voters at the expense of Southern black voters. The shift constituted a sea change from the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, which fought to end slavery while Democrats fought to cling to it, and realigned the parties to the support structure still seen today, in which the vast majority of black voters support Democrats and the vast majority of Southern white voters support the Republican party.

No voting records have been published showing who King pulled the lever for, but when Goldwater was nominated for president by Republicans in 1964, King penned a ferociously worded letter, calling his nomination “unfortunate and disastrous” and taking issue with nearly every facet of Sen. Goldwater’s platform while urging other black voters to support someone else.

“On the urgent issue of civil rights, Sen. Goldwater represented a philosophy that was morally indefensible and socially suicidal,” King wrote at the time. “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 Sen. Goldwater and his philosophy.”

Later, King would go on to discuss a presidential candidate he supported, though never endorsed, writing “I felt that (John F.) Kennedy would make the best president. I never came out with an endorsement. My father did, but I never made one. Had President Kennedy lived, I would probably have endorsed him in 1964.”

In his own words

King addressed his reluctance to embrace either party several times, taking aim at both parties, but at the same time championing “liberal legislation,” saying, in a 1958 interview: “The Negro has been betrayed by both the Republican and the Democratic party. The Democrats have betrayed him by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the Southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed him by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of reactionary right wing northern Republicans. And this coalition of southern Dixiecrats and right-wing reactionary northern Republicans defeats every bill and every move towards liberal legislation in the area of civil rights.”

 

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