Yes, you heard right. Many conservatives marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington are saying the civil rights leader was a Republican. Some suggest that were he still with us, King would be a conservative. He would oppose Obamacare. He would voice displeasure with the Obama administration’s policies concerning social welfare. In general, the 2013 version of MLK would be a conservative Republican.
“Most people don’t talk about the fact that Martin Luther King was a Republican,” Ada Fisher, a black North Carolinian who sits on the Republican National Committee, told ABC News this week.
All this is a reminder of what the passage of time does to the reputations of controversial figures. Hard feelings fade. Fine details are lost on the generations that follow. Reshaping takes place so as to make a leader more palatable, even to old foes.
Thirty years ago, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., won favor with many Southern conservatives by opposing the establishment of a federal holiday in King’s honor. The fight failed to prevent passage in Congress or President Ronald Reagan from signing the holiday into law. The House passed the measure 338-90 (with 77 Republicans voting no). In the Senate, it was approved 78-22 (with 18 Republicans voting no).
However, Helms’ defamation of King found favor with Southern grassroots conservatives, the ones abandoning the Democratic candidates for Republican ones.
Such outright opposition to King and his drive for civil rights, though, was already fading. Never again would such a frontal assault on King or the civil rights movement take place.
What came next was conservative-orchestrated image makeover for King, one that omitted the issues they considered bothersome. Recall that a writer for the conservative journal National Review wrote in 1965 that King and his lieutenants were “deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country.”
Such sentiments have long since fallen out of favor as part of the rebranding. King’s opposition to U.S. military involvement - gone. King’s push for economic justice - gone. King’s stated opposition to the extremism that dominates today’s Republican Party - gone.
King called the 1964 Republican convention that nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona a “frenzied wedding” of “the KKK with the radical right” with the intent of gearing “its appeal and program to racism, reaction and extremism.”
Doesn’t sound like much of a Republican, does it?
The truth is King was a preacher, not a politician. He was at times critical of Democrats, particularly the Johnson administration’s escalation in the Vietnam War.
Yet, 50 years after the March on Washington, much of this history has been whitewashed by a movement that generally lined up on the opposite side of King’s vision. It’s enough to make us wonder that if in 50 or so more years there might be a faction of Tea Partiers who will claim that Barack Obama was really a Republican.