Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican—or Not: Reflections on the March on Washington and MLK’s Legacy

Posted on August 28, 2012

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“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” — Martin Luther King, Jr., speech to Negro American Labor Council in 1965*

“We must create full employment or we must create incomes” — Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” (1967)

God is not cooperating with the Republicans during this election cycle. Due to tropical storm Isaac, Republicans will start their convention on the 49th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech. Many of us are aware of how many conservatives love trotting out their “colorblind” version of Martin Luther King, Jr. who always seems to utter, “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” as if they were pulling a string from an MLK doll.

Some conservatives and Republicans, like Newt Gingrich, Glenn Beck (remember his “Restoring Honor” march on August 28, 2010?), Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and others like to sing the praises of Dr. King and speak fondly of the civil rights movement. Black Republicans like Charlotte Bergmann who is running for a House seat in Tennessee, and the National Black Republican Association (NBRA), also seek to claim King and the civil rights legacy as their own. According to the NBRA’s newsletter, they argue that they are the real heir to King’s legacy because members of his family, notably his father—Martin Luther King, Sr., registered Republican and that black Americans like King fought against racist white southern Democrats.[1] Sure, racist white southern Democrats represented a great threat to black civil rights in the south for almost a century after Reconstruction.  One party ruled in many southern towns and cities, hence a likely reason why blacks like MLK’s father would register as a Republican. Yet, Republicans always fail to recognize political change in our party system (many black Americans shifted their party allegiance during the 1930s).[2] Also, we should not forget that President Lyndon Johnson, a white southern Democrat, consulted King and other black leaders on the most significant civil rights legislation—the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. What is ironic is that King, liberal Democrats, and President Johnson also struggled against racist white southern democrats to get this legislation passed.  And King, like many progressives today, grew weary of the sitting Democratic President. King did not lose faith in Johnson until 1967, and he did not do so over race, but over Vietnam and Johnson’s withering commitment to eradicating poverty. It appears that some republicans boast only a superficial knowledge of the history, and the intricacies of, U.S. party politics and the civil rights movement.

“We are not racist!” “We did not sell out Dr. King and the civil rights movement!”

This, of course, is what (black) conservatives are trying to tell us. Fine, I can leave refuting flawed and bigoted assumptions about the President’s place of birth and his religious faith to those who are more interested. I can also brush aside Mitt Romney’s birther joke as well. Proving whether or not someone, or a political party, is racist (especially when no one would ever in their right mind admit to their racism) gets tiresome and probably will not get me anywhere. I do not need to talk about the GOP and race in order to prove that Dr. King stood to the left on issues that remain significant in our contemporary moment.

The usual argument against the conservative appropriation of Dr. King is that many conservatives usually render King and his ideas static, often neglecting King’s explicit arguments for a revolution of values and radical transformation of U.S. society. Towards the end of his life, King’s vision of a better society actually bent more towards what he actually called a “democratic socialism,” as opposed to a capitalist free market utopia.** Yet, like Thomas Jackson suggests in his book, From Civil Rights to Human Rights:  Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice, we do not need to always emphasize King’s later years to make this point, we can consider the broader context surrounding the organizing of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well as the writings that King published around the same time.

Obviously, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington is one of the most iconic moments in American history. However, we often fail to recall its meanings and actual goals when citing it. We use King’s speech, or at least a few remarks from it, to interpret the event (and by extension, a whole movement) as a call for a colorblind America to supplant Southern racism. Yet, sometimes we overlook how King intended the march “to arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro.”[3]

Right—the march was not just about decent treatment or civil rights narrowly defined as individual rights, or equal opportunity, generally. Organizers saw the march as one for freedom and jobs—for civil and economic rights. In fact, the march’s two principal organizers—black labor leader, A. Phillip Randolph, and black gay political organizer, Bayard Rustin—conceived of the march as an action calling for government intervention into the nation’s economy. The goals of the demonstration included not just the passage of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill, but also a federal public-works jobs program.[4]

Dr. King amplified the March’s calls for government intervention in his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. He suggested a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” to eradicate poverty and he called for the U.S. to construct a real full employment economy, two measures that are to the left of Obama and today’s Democrats. Pointing out the contradictions between wealth and poverty in the U.S., King declared, “The energetic and creative expansion of work opportunities, in both the public and private sectors of the economy, is an imperative worthy of the richest nation on earth, whose abundance is an embarrassment as long as millions of poor are imprisoned and constantly self-renewed within an expanding population.”[5] King also understood how both race and class in the southern slave economy created and sustained white poor populations. King’s thoughts on poverty, race, and class in 1964 really foreshadowed the Poor People’s Campaign that he and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), were planning in 1968.

What about the Republicans?

Well, Romney and the Republicans promise the same economic elixir of balancing the budget, tax cuts on individuals, especially the wealthy, and corporations, more deregulation, especially rolling back Obamacare, and cutting other social programs. Not surprisingly, Romney and the GOP aim to govern from the same supply-side logic as Reagan attempted to do during the 1980s and as Bush during the 2000s. It is hard to see King in the same tradition considering how he consistently called for government leadership in address poverty and extending economic growth to all Americans.

The focus on jobs in the March on Washington and Dr. King’s Why We Can’t Wait, resonates today, considering the state of the national and global economy. Thanks to a plethora of large-scale political and economic changes over the last forty years, some of us may have a little “freedom,” and maybe even a job (read: low wage and/or part time employment without benefits), in name. Yet, even as the nation slowly emerges from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Americans still run the risk of joining the ranks of the unemployed. The unemployment rate has remained at 8.3 percent (12.8 million people). Job losses have hit blacks (unemployment rate at 14.1 percent) and Latinos (10.3 percent) the hardest when compared to white Americans (7.4 percent). 8.2 million people remain in part-time employment while 3.8 million were forced or “dropped out” of the labor force. [6] According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent data (as of 2010), around 46 million Americans lived in poverty. And with hundreds of thousands of Americans filing jobless claims weekly, it is tough to imagine that Dr. King would support a budget akin to Paul Ryan’s “The Path to Prosperity,” which would gut the safety net.

Yes, Dr. King had a dream, but it seems that the promise that financial deregulation and tax cuts would ensure prosperity has not worked out like the supply-side Reaganites (which include some Democrats) thought it would during the 1980s. In fact, this bad check has come back insufficient not just for poor and working Americans, but the nation’s shrinking middle-class. King, Randolph, Rustin and their allies knew that one really did not have freedom if one had little opportunity to earn an adequate living. That’s why we can’t wait. Demanding our right to a living wage and government insurance of full employment falls squarely within the aims of the March on Washington in 1963.

Unfortunately, our obsession with a few phrases from Dr. King’s “Dream” speech obscures these points and Dr. King’s views about poverty, class and racial oppression. If one listened to many conservatives, one would think Dr. King calling for a full employment economy, government intervention and defending preferential treatment for black Americans represented Dr. King in rare form. But anti-poverty, full employment and the recognition of the relationship between class and racial oppression remained persistent themes in King’s speeches and writings not just at the end of his life, but during the precise moment where many Americans love to wax poetic about Dr. King’s “dream.” After clarifying the aims of the March on Washington and thinking of King’s ideas of proper action around economic issues, we see that those who continue to make demands on the government and corporations for economic justice are the ones who really carry the torch lit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and welfare rights activists like Johnnie Tillmon.


[1] National Black Republican Association, “Martin Luther King, Jr. Was a Republican,” http://charlottebergmann.com/NBRA%20Civil%20Rights%20Newsletter.pdf, accessed 27 August 2012.

[2] This line of argument is anachronistic and rather offensive. First, no one mentions how and why black Americans began to shift their political support to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party in national elections after 1932 because many blacks felt that FDR and the Democrats were best equipped to deal with economic depression.  Second, this argument assumes that black Democrats are either dumb, or brainwashed, almost implying that they are not fit for political participation. This argument implies a reproduction of a ‘false consciousness’ argument.

[3] Quoted in David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.), 284. The march was not without its shortcomings, however, as male leaders marginalized (black) women’s’ concerns and excluded them from speaking at the affair.

[4] Quoted in Garrow, 284.

[5] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Mentor, 1963), 139.

[6] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Situation Summary, 3 August 2012, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf, accessed 27 August 2012.

*Quoted in Thomas Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 230.

**Jackson talks about King’s radicalism at length in his book. Also,  see King’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here:  Chaos or Community (1967) and his speech, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” in James Washington’s edited collection of King’s writings and speeches, A Testament of Hope:  The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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