Whitewashing The Past: How Conservatives Spurn MLK’s Legacy

What would MLK say?

Mid-January is here. For most Americans that means cold weather outside. For liberals on social media, it means we will once again be exposed to our annual serving of conservative historical revisionism recasting Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Republican hero. The very conservatives who attack Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Jr as “race pimps” and who castigate Barack Obama for being a “socialist”, will argue, without any sense of irony, that MLK was one of them, a Republican. You know… a gun-loving, trickle down economics supporting,  affirmative action bashing, pro-life conservative who fought the evil forces of the Democratic Party. Yes, really. That is a thing on Twitter.

Perhaps it makes sense that in a nation where it is still next to impossible to indict white cops for shooting unarmed black men, King’s legacy is reduced to empty platitudes and deliberate misrepresentations of what he stood for. The historical memory allows white people, even conservatives, to recall the “I have a Dream” speech, or at least its most famous line

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

In fact, they can distort the meaning of that speech enough to convince themselves that King was calling for an end to “playing the race card”. They can even use those words to challenge race-based affirmative action. Conservatives have trivialized King’s dream to a watered down vision that a black kid with an SAT score of 1820 shouldn’t get admitted to UCLA over a white kid who scored 1840. The civil rights movement’s iconic figure reduced to the banality of supporting a “colorblind” admissions counselor.

Of course, the conservative argument ignores King’s true position on affirmative action. In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote:

Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic… A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.

King proposed an employment program for 20 million blacks that would have carried a 50 billion dollar price tag in the 1960s. When Alex Haley asked King in an interview if he felt it was fair to request a multi-billion dollar program giving “preferential treatment” to blacks, King responded:

Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages–potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest.

By focusing on the ”I Have a Dream” version of MLK, Conservatives and white Americans in general, can express nostalgia for a sanitized version of MLK, whitewashed for their comfort and convenience. The rabble-rousing radical who railed against economic injustice and rampant militarism is forgotten. He is too frightening. Instead, America has reinvented MLK. The King we celebrate is not the confrontational civil rights leader who could only be silenced by an assassin’s bullet. Rather we cheer a safe black man who quietly marched and asked for justice. We honor a diluted Martin Luther King Jr., adulterated by selective memory that prevents us from confronting the injustices we still perpetuate to this day.

The claim that MLK was a Republican is perhaps the most insidious form of revisionism. However, whitewashing is not the province of white conservatives alone. Our entire culture tends to minimize King’s radicalism, privileging his “I Have a Dream” speech persona over the MLK who condemned American foreign policy, and who demanded stronger action to achieve economic justice and fight the scourge of poverty.

The claim that King was a Republican is so lacking in credibility that it hardly deserves a rebuttal, but given its prevalence on social media, it probably bears repeating that MLK was emphatically not a Republican. King was a left-wing independent who did not align with either political party. At the presidential level, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that MLK voted Democratic in 1960 and 1964. According to his own words, he probably voted Democratic in the 1952 and 1956 elections as well.  Obviously, his opinion of Southern Democrats like Lester Maddox, Orval Faubus, and George Wallace was unfavorable, since they literally stood in the doorways to block racial progress. However, that doesn’t mean he embraced the GOP.

Since elections use secret ballots, we can’t know for sure how he voted, but his public statements make it pretty clear that he had no use for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. In his autobiography, King wrote of the GOP in 1964:

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 at the Cow Palace 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. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white 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. [King, Jr., Martin Luther; Carson, Clayborne (1998).] The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Conservatives also apparently have forgotten, or choose to forget, that Martin Luther King Jr. wanted a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, whether they worked or not. He wasn’t merely proposing tinkering with marginal minimum wage increases. He sought a guaranteed minimum income that was pegged to the median household income at the time. In a word, he was advocating something akin to socialism. Not the faux socialism that conservatives accuse Obama of supporting, but the real deal.

So when you remember Martin Luther King Jr on January 19th, or any other day, think about this. He was a radical who wanted to pull the U.S. out of Vietnam, wanted to eradicate poverty through a generous guaranteed income program, and he called for providing reparations to African-Americans for centuries of mistreatment. He wasn’t a black conservative, or moderate, who gave a speech in Washington. He was black radical who spoke to truth to power and scared the living daylights out of much of white America—in the North and the South. To ignore that fact is to whitewash history.

Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master's Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick's successful re-election bid in Arizona's 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.

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