Day By Day

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Martin Luther King, Republican?

My, my, my! Someone has touched a nerve!

Black conservatives, led by Frances Rice, have been stirring up a major controversy with their recent claims that Martin Luther King was a Republican. Democrats have their knickers in a twist over the issue, and even some Republicans have denounced the claim. [Read about it here.]

In an article for Human Events Ms. Rice lays out the major elements of her argument:

She starts with the claim that:

From its founding in 1854 as the anti-slavery party until today, the Republican Party has championed freedom and civil rights for blacks....

It was the Republicans who fought to free blacks from slavery and amended the Constitution to grant blacks freedom (13th Amendment), citizenship (14th Amendment) and the right to vote (15th Amendment). Republicans passed the civil rights laws of the 1860s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Act of 1867 that was designed to establish a new government system in the Democrat-controlled South, one that was fair to blacks. Republicans also started the NAACP and affirmative action with Republican President Richard Nixon's 1969 Philadelphia Plan (crafted by black Republican Art Fletcher) that set the nation's fi[r]st goals and timetables.


Few black Americans know that it was Republicans who founded the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Unknown also is the fact that Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen from Illinois was key to the passage of civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1965. Not mentioned in recent media stories about extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is the fact that Dirksen wrote the language for the bill. Dirksen also crafted the language for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which prohibited discrimination in housing. President Lyndon Johnson could not have achieved passage of civil rights legislation without the support of Republicans.

True as far as it goes, although the Republican Party's position on slavery evolved over time as did its position regarding Black civil rights. It is more accurate to say that the Republican Party has historically been far more consistent in its support for Black civil rights than has the Democratic Party and that many, perhaps most, of the civil rights movement's greatest gains have been facilitated by the actions of Republicans, both Black and White.

As Ms. Rice rightly points out, the Democratic Party has had, for the most part, a miserable record on civil rights.

It was the Democrats who fought to keep blacks in slavery and passed the discriminatory Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan to lynch and terrorize blacks. The Democrats fought to prevent the passage of every civil rights law beginning with the civil rights laws of the 1860s, and continuing with the civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s.

During the civil rights era of the 1960s, Dr. King was fighting the Democrats who stood in the school house doors, turned skin-burning fire hoses on blacks and let loose vicious dogs.

And, she is also right to note the important role played by Republicans during the Eisenhower administration in advancing the cause of Black civil rights

It was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who pushed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sent troops to Arkansas to desegregate schools. President Eisenhower also appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court, which resulted in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation. Much is made of Democrat President Harry Truman's issuing an Executive Order in 1948 to desegregate the military. Not mentioned is the fact that it was Eisenhower who actually took action to effectively end segregation in the military.
And she is quite right to note that John F. Kennedy was no friend to the civil rights movement.

Democrat President John F. Kennedy is lauded as a proponent of civil rights. However, Kennedy voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act while he was a senator, as did Democrat Sen. Al Gore Sr. And after he became President, Kennedy was opposed to the 1963 March on Washington by Dr. King that was organized by A. Phillip Randolph, who was a black Republican. President Kennedy, through his brother Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, had Dr. King wiretapped and investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Communist in order to undermine Dr. King.
So far, so good. I also agree with Ms. Rice's assertion that Democratic leaders cynically manipulate and lie to Black voters, and that the highly-praised anti-poverty programs of the past several decades have been largely ineffective. But, to claim that Dr. King was a Republican is stretching things a bit.

Dr. King's father, it is true, was a Republican, but supported the Kennedy administration after JFK intervened to have his son released from jail. Martin Luther King, Jr. was generally non-partisan. He supported the Eisenhower administration's efforts to promote civil rights, but he also supported Kennedy and Johnson and denounced Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights reforms of the 1960's.

Ms. Rice also argues that Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" that sought to convince southern Democrats to vote Republican was not racist. That is questionable. There was a significant element of cynical racism in Nixon's strategy.

Ms. Rice's article stands as a useful corrective to the highly-partisan account of the civil rights movement that prevails in our political culture. Democrats deserve far less credit than they have received while Republican contributions have been largely unappreciated. But she goes to far in attempting to claim Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Republican Party. It would be unfair to say that he was either Republican or Democrat, or as some critics have claimed, a Communist. He was, first and foremost, a powerful advocate for Black civil rights and supported any political movement, including the Communist Party, that would advance that cause.

Suffice it to say that Republicans have a record on civil rights to which they can proudly point, and there are many valid grounds on which to criticize Democrats. It is time to move beyond the cynical racial demagoguery that has characterized our political culture for the past several decades. Ms. Rice, if she qualifies her claims and tones down her rhetoric can make a significant contribution toward achieving that goal. I wish her the best in that regard.

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