As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we engage in a practice that the great civil rights leader may not appreciate. King was both a pragmatist and a man of high moral principles. His entire life was dedicated to pushing aside a widely accepted false narrative to expose fundamental truth. And yet, we celebrate his life largely on a false political narrative – one of the most mendacious false narratives in American history.
The narrative stems from the fact that King is a national hero – and especially for the black community. The black community is predominantly Democrat – ergo King is a Democrat hero. Many believe he was adversarial to the Republican Party and vice versa. Nothing could be further from the truth.
King correctly saw the opposition to civil rights was founded in the Democratic Party. Until Barry Goldwater voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, King was a Republican. The targets of his crusades were against institutional racism in the segregated states of the Old Confederacy, where his racist enemies had names: George Wallace, Lurleen Wallace, Harry Byrd, Robert Byrd, Richard Russell, Ross Barnett, John Stennis, Earl Long, Lester Maddox, “Bull” Conner, Orval Faubus, James Eastland, Herman Talmadge, George Smathers and thousands of other officeholders. They were all powerful Democrats.
(If you are young and white, those names may not be known to you. But if you research the horrors and racial violence of the first half of the 20th Century, these are the names that will live in infamy.)
King well recognized that institutional racism was not confined to the solid Democrat southland. It had been an iconic feature of the major northern cities for decades. One of the most racist cities in America was also the one with the longest empowered Democrat political machine – Chicago. It was the reason he made the Windy City his first northern crusade. The violent reaction to his presence caused King to say that “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”
Because it does not fit the Democratic Party narrative, the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960 passed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and congressional Republicans over the opposition of southern Democrats – including Lyndon Johnson — and a few from the northern Democrats – including Jack Kennedy.
Many black homes of the era hung framed side-by-side images of King and Kennedy implying that they were mutual heroes of civil rights when, in fact, King had a very low regard for Jack. King was an admirer of Bobby Kennedy, who was far more supportive of civil rights than his older brother.
Leading into the 1960s civil rights era, King’s closest ally in Washington was Vice President Richard Nixon. They had worked closely together to secure the passage of the 1957 and 1960 civil rights acts. That relationship was memorialized in a letter from King to Nixon in August of 1957 in which the civil rights leader recommended passage of the civil rights bill even though it had been watered down by Democrats – again Johnson and Kennedy. In it, King wrote:
”Let me say before closing how deeply grateful all people of goodwill are to you for your assiduous labor and dauntless courage in seeking to make the Civil Rights Bill a reality. This has impressed people all across the country, both Negro and white. This is certainly an expression of your devotion to the highest mandates of the moral law. It is also an expression of your political wisdom. More and more the Negro vote is becoming a decisive factor in national politics.
“Again, let me thank you for your hospitality and generosity. You have my prayers and best wishes for the great work that you are doing in making our democracy a living reality. With persons like you occupying such important positions in our nation, I am sure that we will soon emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice for all men. Please extend my best regards to Mrs. Nixon and our other friends around the White House.”
While King was deeply disappointed in Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 civil rights bill, he maintained his working relationship with Nixon and such key Republicans as Senator Everett Dirksen, who authored and introduced the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Dirksen has previously led the Republicans in the Senate to the first ever defeat of a Democrat filibuster of a civil right bill. The 1964 legislation would have gone down to defeat if it were not for the overwhelming support it received by Republicans in the Senate and House – over strong Democrat opposition.
King was a staunch supporter of Nixon leading into the 1968 presidential election. It was driven by both a longstanding personal friendship and the prospect of affirmative action legislation and increased funding for minority enterprises – two of Nixon’s key policies.
Though Democrat president praised King posthumously, they did not act to celebrate his life with a national holiday. That was left to Republican President Ronald Reagan.
Following the assassination, his closest ally and confidant, Ralph Abernathy took over King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also remained a Republican in a country where virtually all institutional racism existed under powerful Democrat regimes. King’s niece, Alveda King, continues the crusade for social justice as a dedicated Republican.
One can only wonder what King would think and do if he were alive today. As a person who has studied his life, I think he would be actively protesting against the institutional racism that dominates our big cities today. And he would not hesitate to call out the Democrat leadership in cities where de facto racism has kept too many of his people segregated, oppressed, impoverished, uneducated and unsafe.
So, there ‘tis.