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10/07/2014 07:29 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

What Would Martin Say? Martin Luther King and the November Elections

Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

"They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. ... God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty."
--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "Paul's Letter to American Christians," 1956

"I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity. I choose to live for those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I'm going. If it means suffering a little bit, I'm going that way. If it means sacrificing, I'm going that way. If it means dying for them, I'm going that way, because I heard a voice saying, 'Do something for others.'"
--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., "The Good Samaritan," 1966

Throughout his public life Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made it a point to neither publicly endorse nor publicly oppose any politician or political party. In the tradition of the biblical prophets who so influenced him, he conscientiously eschewed political partisanship and instead maintained an uncompromising stance of principled nonalignment. To this he made just one exception. Because he saw the right-wing policies espoused by the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, as a dangerous threat to the fabric of American society, King put aside his principled nonpartisanship and vigorously campaigned against the Republican nominee, declaring that it was "disastrous that the Republican Party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for President of the United States." He lamented:

The prospect of Senator Goldwater being President of the United States so threatened the health, morality, and survival of our nation, that I could not in good conscience fail to take a stand against what he represented.

Looking back on Goldwater's landslide loss several years later, King explained why he believed Goldwater was such a threat:

  • Extremist racial politics:

    The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism. All people of goodwill viewed with alarm and concern the frenzied wedding ... of the KKK with the radical right. ... While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulated a philosophy which gave aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand.

  • Bellicose approach to foreign policy:

    Mr. Goldwater advocated a narrow nationalism, a crippling isolationism, and a trigger-happy attitude that could plunge the whole world into the dark abyss of annihilation.

  • Economic elitism and a stated intent to unravel the social safety net:

    On social and economic issues, Mr. Goldwater represented an unrealistic conservatism that was totally out of touch with the realities of the twentieth century. Mr. Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated.

King concluded:

In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every ... person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

One of the most striking -- and alarming -- things about King's denunciation of the right-wing politics of Goldwater and the Republican Party of his day is that King could -- and almost certainly would -- issue virtually the same denunciation of the Republican Party today. With few exceptions and with differences only in degree, the policies and political rhetoric of right-wing politicians today closely mirror the extremist policies of Barry Goldwater and the Republican Party of his day that King thought too dangerous to ignore.

Like that of Barry Goldwater, the dominant political rhetoric of politicians in today's Republican Party also appeals to "racism, reaction and extremism," though much more routinely now -- and to greater extremes. And, like Goldwater, their social philosophy has served as an umbrella (they now call it a "big tent") under which extremists of all stripes stand. But unlike with Goldwater, it cannot be said with anything approaching certainty that today's right-wing politicians whose rhetoric appeals to racism are not themselves racists. This is particularly true of the most vocal members of the tea party. Indeed, it might be said that the racial politics of all purveyors of right-wing extremism are suspect.

In the case of foreign policy, there are certainly elements in the Republican Party that advocate Goldwater-type isolationism (such as Rand Paul, for instance) and "narrow (or exclusionary) nationalism." Yet it is hard to imagine King taking a partisan position on "warmongering," given that when it comes to war nowadays, there seems to be little difference between Democrats and Republicans.

When it comes to domestic social and economic policy, however, there is no uncertainty of King's response. If he was willing to give his life for the poor, the hungry and "those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity," there is no doubt that he would be mortified by today's Republican Party. Like Goldwater, it seems to have "neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty"; it appears hell-bent on decimating the social safety net that is the final bulwark between millions of Americans and poverty, hunger, foreclosed opportunities and abject misery. This lack of concern for the impoverished and the vulnerable is highlighted by the 2014 budget proposed by Paul Ryan, the Republican Party's much-touted budget guru and former vice-presidential nominee. Ryan's budget cuts trillions of dollars from every crucial federal program that benefits poor and struggling Americans, including Medicaid, Medicare, welfare, health care, food stamps, college-tuition assistance and early-childhood education -- all to the loud applause of Republicans across the board. King would be mortified by Republicans' demonstrated contempt for the least fortunate Americans and their willful inattention to the vast -- and still growing -- gap between rich and poor. One of his deepest beliefs was that "God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty."

But King's opposition to today's Republicans would not just be based upon broad-stroke opposition to their right-wing political ideology, for King was not an ideologue. His commitment was not to any particular political ideology; it was to the foundational biblical ethics of egalitarian justice and collective care and responsibility for all our neighbors, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Thus the struggles to remove all obstacles to racial equality and equity of economic opportunity and mobility for all were inextricably intertwined for him. Because he would find too familiar the ugly racial rhetoric and scowling disdain for poor Americans that seems to lie beneath the surface of every Republican policy and political pronouncement today, any number of Republican postures and policy positions would excite King's revulsion. Below are a few instances of the Republican agenda that would be sure to raise his ire:

  • Republican officials have either supported or, at best, refused to oppose measures designed to limit voter turnout in demographic groups and neighborhoods they see as unreceptive to their right-wing agenda, particularly people of color. This effectively disenfranchises an untold number of American citizens and undermines the very foundations of American democracy.
  • They have coupled their unconscionable onslaught upon voting rights with legislation that struck down key voter-protection provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for which King and so many others suffered and died.
  • Likewise they have either proposed or refused to oppose the onslaught on numerous regulations that protect American citizens from predatory corporate market practices, in exchange for campaign dollars from billionaire plutocrats and their funded fronts, including the Koch brothers' American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the extreme right-wing activist organizations the brothers fund (and in the case of AFP, founded).
  • They cut off unemployment benefits to millions of desperate unemployed American workers in the midst of a long-term structural unemployment crisis.
  • They have squandered much-needed legislative time and resources by voting more than 50 times to repeal the 2010 Affordable Healthcare Act, which provides affordable healthcare coverage to millions of previously uninsured Americans -- without offering a viable alternative.
  • They have defeated all legislative efforts to secure for women the basic right to equal pay for equal work -- without one dissenting Republican vote.
  • They have demonized and declared war upon unions, despite unions being among the most important remaining buffers between American workers' well-being and the unbridled predatory greed of corporate elites.
  • They have routinely demonized poor Americans with hateful, demeaning terms like "moochers," "takers," "lazy," "parasites" and worse.
  • They have fought tooth and nail for budgets and tax arrangements that benefit the wealthy in unfair disproportion while cutting funding for crucial programs serving the long-term unemployed, the sick, the elderly, the destitute and the working poor.

Any clear-eyed consideration of the racial politics of the right-wing extremist Barry Goldwater reveals that the benighted racial politics of the Republican Party today are much the same, though much more extreme. The instances of racism and racial insult by those associated with the Republican Party -- especially its powerful tea party cohort -- are too numerous to count. Indeed, some of the racist actions and declarations by officials of the Republican Party are so outrageous that they actually seem crafted to ensure that all who honor the ideals for which King lived and died would have no choice but to vote against them. There can be no doubt that King would find the racial politics of today's Republican Party extremely distressing. For instance:

  • Republicans have continued Richard Nixon's cynical "Southern strategy" to capitalize on white racial fears and animus, no matter the harm it does to the lives and life chances of black Americans.
  • Major aspirants to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination have variously used dog-whistle racism quite publicly and with little restraint. Among them: Rick Santorum saying, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money"; Michele Bachmann alleging that the black family was better off during slavery; the repeated invoking, by the likes of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, of "welfare" as a dog-whistle term evoking images of blacks as a parasitic cause of the nation's ills; Ron Paul claiming, in one of the numerous racist pamphlets he published, that "only about 5 percent of blacks have sensible political opinions"; and Paul Ryan saying, "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and culture of work."
  • Despite the never-ending attacks on black dignity and integrity from their ranks, Republican leadership has either defended or simply refused to censure their colleagues' crude racist attacks in any meaningful way.
  • Perhaps most damning is the fact that the Ku Klux Klan and every rabidly racist group that publicly identifies with any major political party now self-identify as Republicans.

Also deeply troublesome for King would be the excruciatingly familiar vitriol and racist mischaracterizations heaped upon America's first African-American president and his family, again almost always without censure by their party colleagues. For example, Republican officials have:

  • Circulated doctored photos depicting President Obama and his parents as chimpanzees.
  • Called President Obama, the first African-American president, "the first food-stamp president."
  • Referred to the first lady as "Mrs. YoMamma."
  • Demonized the president, a devout Christian, as a "radical Muslim" who "hates America."
  • Challenged the legitimacy and the legality of Barack Obama's presidency in the most insulting and disrespectful terms.
  • Publicly declared that President Obama should be "sent back to Kenya."
  • Publicly ridiculed the first lady's physique.
  • Actually shouted -- shouted! -- a personal insult at President Obama during his 2009 State of the Union address, impugning his honor before millions of viewers worldwide.
  • Engaged in unabashed obstructionism of scores of legislative proposals crucial to the well-being of everyday Americans, even shutting down the entire federal government, for the stated purpose of discrediting the presidency of Barack Obama. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell once said, "[T]he single most important thing we [Republicans] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
  • Used insultingly exaggerated "ghetto" slang to describe the president of the United States as "shuckin' and jivin'."

Not one of these insults to President Obama received significant censure, which caused an exasperated Colin Powell, the four-star general, former Secretary of State and registered Republican, to ask, "Why do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of [racist] discussion within the party?" To which Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's former chief of staff, provided a candid insider's answer:

My party is full of racists. And the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has ... everything to do with the color of his skin. And that's despicable.

None of this discussion is in any way meant to imply that all or even most members of the Republican Party bear racial animus toward blacks or other people of color; apparently that would be as absurd as it is untrue. However, it does imply -- quite accurately, I believe -- that perhaps a majority of Republicans from top to bottom does willfully engage in political rhetoric that is intentionally crafted to appeal to racism and racist fears.

King said:

I had no alternative but to urge every ... person of goodwill ... to withdraw support from any candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

I believe it is the responsibility of all who take seriously the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to do the same: to urge every person of goodwill to disassociate themselves from the Republican heirs of Barry Goldwater on Nov. 4 with the same burning commitment to justice and love for our neighbors as King. That, my friends, is what Martin would say.