Co-opting King: Why the Right Tries to Claim MLK

Right-wing politicians like North Carolina’s Jesse Helms used to demonize Martin Luther King as a subversive and communist.  Conservative legislators in some states resisted creating an MLK holiday for years.  Some on the far right grumbled about the creation of an MLK memorial on the national mall in Washington, D.C.  But many of today’s conservatives have adopted an entirely different strategy:  claiming Dr. King’s moral authority as their own, positioning themselves as inheritors of his righteous struggle, and claiming against all evidence and history that he would support their war on Planned Parenthood, their opposition to legal protections for LGBT Americans and their families, their crusades against separation of church and state, and their free market fundamentalism.

A few of the would-be-Kings:

Glenn Beck

Broadcaster Glenn Beck is among the most blatant appropriators of King’s memory.  His 2010 gathering at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom included video about King and the march, but failed to note that one of the major purposes of the rally was to demand that the federal government to help people find jobs.  This year Beck compared himself and the conservative movement with MLK and the Obama administration with J. Edgar Hoover. But does anyone doubt that if Beck had been on the air during the 1960s, he would have been a primary outlet for J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to denigrate King as a communist?  

Alveda King

Alveda King, a niece of the civil rights leader, has become a fixture at right-wing events, where she claims her uncle’s legacy for her opposition to legal abortion, LGBT equality, and church-state separation.  Notably, for someone who is fond of quoting her uncle’s dream that people be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin – when she’s using it to urge black voters not to back Obama for example – she has an oddly biological view of her own claim to the King legacy.  His dream is “in her genes,” she has said repeatedly, insisting that MLK would be supporting her attacks on legal abortion if he were alive. And in dismissing the late Coretta Scott King’s support for marriage equality for same-sex couples, Alveda King said “I’ve got his DNA. She doesn’t, she didn’t…I know something about him. I’m made out of the same stuff.”   At Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally, Alveda King said we would know we have arrived when “prayer is once again welcomed in the public squares of America and in our schools.”

Harry Jackson

Harry Jackson, who People For the American Way has described as the “point man” for the Religious Right’s racial wedge strategies, is an all-purpose right-wing activist, though most infamous for his opposition to LGBT equality.  In 2010, Jackson was introduced by dominionist “prophet” Cindy Jacobs as “the modern-day Martin Luther King,” a comparison Jackson himself has made.

He has invoked King in opposition to inclusion of sexual orientation in federal hate crimes legislation as well as marriage equality, and in opposition to the “wholesale removal of God from the public square by secularist totalitarians.”  Jackson, who so fully embraces right-wing economics that he has written that minimum wage laws remind him of slavery, has said “we can’t know for certain what King would have said about the economy, healthcare, taxes or Social Security.”  In fact, King’s own writing and activism give us good reason to believe he would not be standing with Jackson on any of these issues. 

Brian Brown

Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage is fond of invoking King and the civil rights movement as he clamors for public votes to restrict legal protections for same-sex couples and their families.  “We hear that this is about civil rights, and that those of us who oppose the redefinition of marriage are somehow bigots,” Brown said in Iowa last month. “And yet, what Dr. Martin Luther King called the most important civil right – the right to vote – these very same folks are trying to deprive us of this right.”  Of course, this appeal to King’s memory rings especially hollow since NOM’s crass racial and ethnic wedge strategies – and its desire to keep “fanning” hostility between African American and LGBT communities – have been exposed. It’s worth noting that while Brown and his anti-gay allies are quick to trash LGBT people for describing their efforts to win legal equality as a civil rights issue, he sees no problem comparing his efforts to put equality-denying  efforts on the ballot with the bloody struggle to overcome legal barriers erected to keep African Americans from participating in democracy.  Brown’s concern for DC voters’ rights does not extend to actual self-determination; he called for Congress to overturn DC’s marriage equality law.

King-claimers have lots of company

Fully chronicling right-wing efforts to co-opt King’s legacy could fill a book.  Among those who invoke MLK to support their efforts are opponents of affirmative action programs designed to provide equal opportunity to historically marginalized people; the authors and signers of the anti-choice, anti-abortion, anti-church-state-separation Manhattan Declaration; anti-abortion activist Lila Rose; right-wing activist and dominionist Lou Engle,Religious Right activists like Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Rick Scarborough; GOP presidential candidates, and many more.  Evangelist James Robison has argued that wealthy capitalists are facing “a type of racism that is not only damaging but actually potentially very dangerous. There is an animosity and a hostility that you have to go all the way back to the horrible racism that you and I stood against along with Martin Luther King, that we detested. You have to look at that and see how dangerous it is.” The South Carolina Republican Party “celebrated” the legacy of Martin Luther King by inviting David Barton, a GOP activist and promoter of a bogus “Christian nation” history of America, to promote his partisan “documentary” that blames the Democratic Party for slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and the KKK, while ignoring the post-Civil Rights Act “southern strategy” in which the GOP fomented white racism and resentment in order to build electoral support.  King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is cited by Religious Right activists who claim it supports their insistence that “it may be time for Christians to draw a line in the sand” and used to teach Liberty University law students that they should counsel their clients to follow God’s law rather than man’s law.  

Where King Really Stood

Abortion, Family Planning, and Planned Parenthood

Refuting the persistent efforts by anti-choice activists to posthumously enlist King in their crusade against Planned Parenthood is the fact that in 1966, King was honored by Planned Parenthood.  His statement on receiving the honor is in stark contrast with those who today accuse Planned Parenthood and other supporters of reproductive choice of waging “Black Genocide.”  A brief excerpt: 

…Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern….For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life. There are mountainous obstacles still separating Negroes from a normal existence. Yet one element in stabilizing his life would be an understanding of and easy access to the means to develop a family related in size to his community environment and to the income potential he can command.

This is not to suggest that the Negro will solve all his problems through Planned Parenthood. His problems are far more complex, encompassing economic security, education, freedom from discrimination, decent housing and access to culture. Yet if family planning is sensible it can facilitate or at least not be an obstacle to the solution of the many profound problems that plague him.

… For these reasons we are natural allies of those who seek to inject any form of planning in our society that enriches life and guarantees the right to exist in freedom and dignity.

The Rights and Dignity of Gay People

Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, was an openly gay man at a time when being out was costly and dangerous.  Rustin’s sexuality, and a 1950s arrest on “morals charges,” were used by enemies of the civil rights movement to try to discredit the movement and its leaders.  King did distance himself from Rustin when counseled that Rustin’s presence would be damaging to the movement but turned to him to organize the March on Washington; over time Rustin was one of King’s most trusted advisors on non-violent civil disobedience and organizing strategies. King grounded his appeals to Americans’ conscience on the equality of all people in the eyes of God and in the words of the nation’s founding documents. There is no evidence that he would support those trying to carve out exceptions to legal equality for LGBT Americans.  King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, became an outspoken ally of LGBT equality and spoke out on behalf of marriage equality. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2004-03-24-king-marriage_x.htm

The Government’s Role in Promoting Economic Justice

It’s particularly jarring to hear politicians invoking King in one breath and denouncing government efforts to promote economic justice in the next.  The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom called for the government to take action to create jobs.  And as Mark Engler has noted in The Nation:

In a November 1956 sermon, King presented an imaginary letter from the apostle Paul to American Christians, which stated, "Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes... God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.King's focus on economic justice became even sharper in the last years of his life. A noteworthy part of his critique of the Vietnam War was the idea that aggressive foreign interventionism exacted not only a moral cost but also an economic one: spending on the war was undermining President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. In his famous April 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, King made a damning indictment of a budgetary imbalance that continues to this day: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift," he said, "is approaching spiritual death.

The Separation of Church and State

King was an ardent supporter of the Supreme Court’s decision deeming organized prayer in public schools unconstitutional.   Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and state writes:

King supported the Supreme Court’s decisions striking down government-sponsored prayer in public schools. In a January 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, King was asked about one of those rulings. He not only backed what the court did, he noted that his frequent nemesis, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, stood on the other side.

“I endorse it. I think it was correct,” King said. “Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision. They have been motivated, I think, by little more than the wish to embarrass the Supreme Court. When I saw Brother Wallace going up to Washington to testify against the decision at the congressional hearings, it only strengthened my conviction that the decision was right.”

Sanitizing King – and History

One small indication of just how pervasive the right-wing effort to sanitize and appropriate MLK has become can be seen in a video submission by a young conservative for a speech contest held as part of this year’s Conservative Political Action conference:  

There is still hope and good in this broken world, and that's why Conservatives and Tea Partiers are here because we realize there's still a dream--the dream that spans from the founding fathers, to Martin Luther King, to Ronald Reagan, to us, and that dream is worth fighting for.

Hmm, now which part of Martin Luther King’s progressive dream is being promoted by the Tea Party?  (Reagan, for the record, opposed the creation of an MLK holiday but signed the legislation after it passed Congress with a veto-proof margin.)

King’s vision of America went well beyond his dream that children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.  King called for government intervention in the economy to battle poverty by creating jobs and providing individuals with a guaranteed income. He praised the impact of the choices Planned Parenthood gave individuals and families.  He supported Supreme Court rulings on religious liberty and church-state separation. The effort to claim him for today’s Republican Party, the Tea Party, or movements promoting discrimination against any group of Americans is both dishonest and dishonorable.