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John R. Bohrer

John R. Bohrer

Posted: January 8, 2007 02:01 PM

Dr. King: A Registered Republican?

Even Robert Kennedy voted Republican in 1956.

That's right: while working on Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign, Kennedy came to resent the Democratic candidate's apparent insincerity and elitism. Kennedy said that because Stevenson read his stump speech, rather than "give it off the cuff and from the heart," his audience felt that he didn't care about them. Like the majority of Americans that year, Kennedy cast his ballot for Eisenhower.

And one can assume that Martin Luther King, Jr., did too. It would make sense: at the time, his father was a staunch Republican and Democrats weren't that popular with African Americans in the South, even after Harry Truman.

But last year, the National Black Republican Association (NBRA) took a step further and claimed that King was a Republican. Period.

The NBRA claims "King registered as a Republican in 1956" -- something that King biographer Taylor Branch has found no evidence or mention of after years of exhaustive research. This means the NBRA interprets King's 1956 vote to say he was registered Republican, which is not at all an indication of party affliation. But that doesn't matter to the NBRA. They're so certain of their assumption, they're warping King's image by targeting black voters with advertisements and college Republicans with t-shirts. Still, let's put the lack of evidence aside and take a look at King's words and actions, starting in the year with which the NBRA brands his political legacy.

1956 was King's first full year as a leader in the civil rights movement -- a movement he hoped would rise above partisan politics. Of course there were many Southern Democrats who deserved and received King's ire, but he also criticized the Eisenhower administration for refusing "to make a strong positive statement morally condemning segregation" and demanded a civil rights bill stronger than the one passed in 1957. Furthermore, King said the Southern Christian Leadership Council would "not blindly support any party that refuses to take a forthright stand on the question of civil rights," which, at the time, meant both of them.

In the following presidential election, King was satisfied with both candidates. In 1958, he told a friend, "If Richard Nixon is not sincere, he is the most dangerous man in America." At the 1960 Democratic Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy, a few aides wrote what was then an extreme plank on civil rights. They intended to use it to negotiate with Southern Democrats, but to their surprise, campaign manager Robert Kennedy agreed to every word, saying the Dixiecrats would have to get over it. (Which they did: after brief flirtations with Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace, they got over the Democratic Party altogether.)

King abhorred the 1964 Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, and developed a good relationship with Lyndon Johnson. Toward the end of his life, King worked closely with Robert Kennedy, who was planning to run for president. His closest aides still say that had King lived a little longer in 1968, he would have endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time.

Yet, without knowing his party politics, to call King a Republican today is like saying he is a year 2056 Democrat. Who knows what that'll mean? The parties' ideologies can shift back and forth over the decades.

If you ignore party label, one thing is clear: King was a liberal. And not just when it came to issues of race, but in terms of taxes, war, wages, poverty, jobs, education, international diplomacy, and free speech. And despite what groups like the NBRA say, his positions on "values" are not so clear cut. Bayard Rustin -- the aide who steered King toward nonviolence and organized the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom (the full and historically forgotten title) -- was gay, and despite threat of smear, King continued to consult him. In 1966, King accepted Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Award.

King sacrificed a lot for his liberalism. The Johnson White House cut their ties with him because he advocated a multilateral diplomatic solution to Vietnam. Meanwhile, some of King's wealthier supporters abandoned him after he went north to seek an end to economic segregation. He even once told aides he was a democratic socialist, though he was wary to say it in public -- his broadened policy scope had already tarnished his reputation in the national press.

In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr., was merely 27 years old. It was the very start of his career and he had yet to become the iconic figure he is today. To claim his political legacy because of a vote that year is plain wrong.

And besides, even Robert Kennedy voted Republican in 1956.

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