by Coby W. Dillard
January 14, 2009
“It should come as no surprise that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican. In that era, almost all black Americans were Republicans.” Frances Rice, National Black Republican Association
One of the more interesting talking points that I’ve heard come out of the GOP is that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican, in the tradition of the GOP as founded by Abraham Lincoln. What would he say about our party today?
History of the Republican Party and African Americans
Founded in 1854, the GOP was started out of opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed the expansion of slavery into Kansas. In its infancy, the GOP believed in a progressive vision for the emerging United States. The party’s platform placed an emphasis on higher education, industry, and providing free homesteads to farmers. Electing Lincoln as the first Republican president, the party led the nation through the Civil War and Reconstruction, abolishing slavery.
The post-Reconstruction Republican Party was the natural choice for African Americans wanting to enter political life. Blacks supported the GOP in droves, and in turn, the GOP handed out federal positions to black men. This support-and exploitation-continued until around the administration of Teddy Roosevelt, a progressive Republican. An incident that alludes to the shift of blacks from the Republican Party occurred after the Brownsville Affair of 1906, when Roosevelt discharged three companies of black soldiers without trial or hearing, denying their pensions and benefits.
Further evidence of the black/Republican rift is seen in the administration of William Howard Taft, who wanted to make the GOP, in his words, a “lily white” organization. Taft supported the firing of blacks appointed into the government under previous Republican administrations, and replaced them with whites of-suggested-lesser ability.
The death knell of black support for the GOP was sounded with the Wilson Administration. While influential leaders in the black community supported Wilson’s progressive vision for the nation, his feelings on segregation-that it was imperfect, but was the best way to control racial tension-stood in stark contradiction to the GOP’s claim to be the “party of Lincoln.”
Dr. King: Influences, Mission, and Legacy
The actions and teachings of Dr. King were influenced by many notable religious figures, philosophers, and writers. Among them were a Republican (Lincoln), a homosexual member of the Communist Party USA (Bayard Rustin), a leader of the American populist movement (Harry Boyte), a fellow African-American religious leader (Dr. Howard Thurman), a self described “Christian anarchist” (Leo Tolstoy), a Zionist (Theodor Herzl), Gandhi and Jesus Christ. From this incomplete list, we see that Dr. King drew on political, religious, and societal philosophies that crossed ideological lines, and in some cases, directly contradicted each other.
Dr. King’s enduring legacy was the securing and furthering of civil rights for African Americans. To this end, he endured himself to two Democratic presidents, Kennedy and Johnson. Upon signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson remarked that his party had “lost the (votes of the) South for a generation.” With this, one could almost draw the conclusion that Dr. King had more in common with the Democratic Party than with the Republicans. In reality, when viewed through the lens of his influences, it seems that Dr. King was willing to transcend ideology in order to assume his end goal-near equality for African Americans-was achieved.
Would MLK be a Republican today?
I believe there are some principles of the modern Republican Party that Dr. King would support; our fiscal conservatism and willingness to promote freedom and democracy among them. Dr. King, though, would not have approved of the occasional tactics of the modern GOP that cast minorities in a negative light. In fact, Johnson’s statement (above) hints to the fact that by 1964, the GOP was well on its way down a path of discrimination for political gain. As someone who strove for African Americans to be viewed on an equal level, he would not be able to identify with the GOP that we have become. I think Dr. King’s description of the United States in his “I Have a Dream” speech is an equal description of the view some elements of the GOP take towards minorities:
“This note (the Declaration of Independence) was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
Replace “America” with “Republican Party,” and you have the view most African Americans take of the GOP.
This conflict-espousing conservative beliefs while not assuming the “Republican” label-remains prevalent in the African American community today. There are many blacks who are fiscally and socially conservative, but do not claim the “Republican” label because of the historical stigma attached to it. Additionally, those African Americans who know the history of MLK and the Republican Party in detail can easily reduce the “MLK was a Republican” meme to nonsense.
In his book The Race, author Richard North Patterson offers a definition of conservatism:
“To conserve means not only to honor the past, but to meet the challenges of the future.”
While it is important to honor the connections Dr. King did have to the Republican Party, it is not viable, as a matter of strategy, to resort to invoking him as a means of outreach to the black community. Before we can do that, our party must become one that actively works to include African Americans and other minorities, and not one that trots out “token” minorities for short term political gain. We must educate ourselves on the history and legacy of the GOP, so that we can understand the obstacles and resistance that we will face in reaching out to minorities.
The best way for the Republican Party to honor the legacy of Dr. King is to look deeply at what we’ve become, and commit ourselves to making genuine efforts to include those who hold our beliefs and principles, regardless of their skin color.