Dispelling the Myths About Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we celebrate the birthday of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inevitably the mythology of the legend gets in the way of the facts surrounding his life. Conservatives try to claim him as one of their own, while abortion opponents crow that he was on their side in the debate. But King was neither a Republican nor anti-abortion, nor did he oppose affirmative action as many claim. Instead, he was a far more radical advocate for racial justice than many are willing to admit.

Every year, the GOP trots out their claims that King was actually a Republican, going as far as to create billboards asserting that “fact.”

A campaign in Denver, Colo. launched their billboards at one point to criticize President Barack Obama, stating, “Obama is no MLK. Obama is a far left-wing radical Democrat who does not share our values. MLK was a minister and a Republican who embraced our traditional values.” Others have used the billboards to support GOP candidates running for office.

The assertion is complete fiction. “We knew, because he said so, that King never endorsed politicians and took this position in order to maintain a bipartisan posture, which I have followed all along in order to be able to look objectively at both parties at all time,” writes Politifact. “We also know from his autobiography that he wrote to a supporter in 1956 that ‘in the past, I always voted the Democratic ticket.’ We know that his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., a longtime Republican when most Southern Democrats were segregationists, endorsed John F. Kennedy publicly in the 1960 presidential race over Republican Richard M. Nixon.”

ThinkProgress confirms Politifact’s reporting after talking to a King historian. “David Garrow, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of King, stated ‘It’s simply incorrect to call Dr. King a Republican,’” said Judd Legum. “King, according to Garrow, did hold some Republicans — including Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller — in high regard. He also was harshly critical of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. In 2008, King’s son Martin Luther King III said ‘It is disingenuous to imply that my father was a Republican. He never endorsed any presidential candidate, and there is certainly no evidence that he ever even voted for a Republican.’ Garrow claimed there is little doubt King voted for Kennedy in 1960 and Johnson in 1964.”

The claim that King was against abortion has just as little to support it, despite the insistence of King’s own niece Alveda King, an anti-abortion activist. “Alveda’s characterization of her late uncle’s activism is not new, nor is it correct. She has for some time now been a crusader for anti-abortion causes, insisting that Dr. King would have accepted that a fertilized embryo as a human endowed with full rights,” explains Stephen Webster at Raw Story. “…Despite her allegations, Dr. King was firmly in favor of family planning as a means of easing overpopulation and raising the standard of living for each individual. In 1966, he received the first ever Margaret Sanger award, an honor named after Planned Parenthood’s founder. King was one of four recipients, along with President Lyndon Johnson.” In his speech, which was read by his wife at the event due to King’s illness, he stated that, “There is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted. That which should be a blessing becomes a curse for parent and child.”

While activists on the right attempt to recreate King into their own image, they often reject those parts of King that were both the most radical and the most inspirational, both to his generation and beyond. They hold up his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech few know was in many cases extemporized on the spot, as his most authentic voice, and see him advocating for a color-blind, desegregated world in which they argue there is no need for policies like Affirmative Action. At the same time they completely ignore works like “Letters from Birmingham Jail,” a missive scrawled on whatever paper King could access as he was kept in solitary confinement after an arrest during a protest on Good Friday.

“[The 'I Have a Dream' speech is] King as a dreamer with black and white children holding hands,’” Jonathan Rieder, author of  “Gospel of Freedom” told CNN on the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham letter. “It becomes part of the myth of a post-racial society: ‘Aren’t we fine people?’”

“The letter undermines America’s investment in its feel-good celebration of King,” added CNN’s John Blake. “Many Americans aren’t ready to meet the King revealed in his epic letter. That King isn’t a dreamer, Rieder says, but someone else: The angry black man who wonders what kind of God some white people follow.”

That the right wants so desperately to soften and undermine King’s image and legacy shows not just their continuing avoidance of addressing racial inequality, but their desire to rewrite history to best suit their agenda. Today, on the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, we simply cannot allow that to happen.

Photo credit: via Flickr user Florida Memory

179 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

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K H.
Kate H3 years ago

I think one of the things Rev. Dr. King cared about the most was for us all to work towards all people being safe, and happy, and able to live in peace with each other, no matter who we were, what party, what religion, where we were from. I encourage everyone who hasn't done so to listen to and/or read his full "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence" speech, I believe it is one of the most brilliant, moving, earnest, well-said, incredible things that has ever been written and expressed by a human being.

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Janis K.
Janis K4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Janet B.
Janet B4 years ago

Thanks

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Frank S.
Past Member 4 years ago

TYFS

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feather w.
Feather W4 years ago

MLK was real hero...too bad we didn´t listen to him..

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N. Jane Walker
N. Jane Walker4 years ago

I say 'in Canada' because we actually have political parties called 'Conservative', not because there aren't people all over the world who label themselves 'conservative' .

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N. Jane Walker
N. Jane Walker4 years ago

Much like here in Canada being a 'conservative' used to mean you were interested in, well, CONSERVING!!! It's true! Today it's people who consider themselves to be conservative who are driving the gas-guzzling SUVs and cinsuming the landfill products. Monikers and their meanings change over time.

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N. Jane Walker
N. Jane Walker4 years ago

Republicans were different back then.

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