In 1983, 15 years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, President Reagan signed into law the holiday commemorating his birth. Today, his approval stands at over 90% in the most recent Gallup polling. However, he was not always so popular. The establishment of the holiday, for instance, was itself a controversy. Lawmakers who opposed primarily did so out of opposition to a new federal holiday. However, a few, such as Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a former segregationist radio commentator, went further by invoking the personal controversies of Dr. King. President Reagan himself had reservations about the holiday, but signed it after the Senate passed it by a veto-proof margin. He was even more controversial in the 1960s than when the holiday was signed into law. A 1966 Gallup poll found that King had a 32% approval vs. 63% disapproval (Newport, 2006). This was after he focused his attention on civil rights issues outside of the South and urban rioting had picked up.
King a Communist?
A common charge leveled against King during his lifetime primarily by Southern whites and the John Birch Society was that King was a communist. They would cite a photo of him at a “communist training school” as evidence. This was a misrepresentation of the Highlander Folk School, a social justice institution run by socialist Myles Horton. King himself stated his support for nationalizing businesses in letters to Coretta Scott in 1952. However, Reverend King falls short of communism on account of his religiosity. He condemned communism as “godless” and immoral. What’s more, communism comes about through violent revolution, and King preached and practiced non-violence. His detractors also would cite his connections to people such as civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a gay pacifist who had briefly been involved in the Young Communist League (he left in 1941), and attorney Stanley Levison, who had served as a financial coordinator for CPUSA in the early 1950s and had apparently ended his affiliation with them by 1957. Levison was a point of concern for the FBI, and J. Edgar Hoover believed that he would manipulate King into embracing communist ends.
The truth about King was that he was a socialist, not a communist. His associations with people who had been Communists or affiliated with the Communist Party was part of his willingness to work with anyone if they could further his goals, and this included Vice President Richard Nixon, who had supported a strong voting rights bill in 1957.
King a Republican?
One of the more common historical controversies about King involve his alleged Republicanism. This is often based on the 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 colour of their skin but by the content of their character”, which is widely viewed by conservatives as logically inconsistent with affirmative action. Thus, this time of the year some conservative activists will take to claiming that he was a Republican. This one only has a kernel of truth: his father, Martin Sr., was a Republican until 1960, when he endorsed John F. Kennedy. King was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but as I noted in the section of “King a Communist?”, his views on economics were socialist and his views on the federal government expansive, making him a distinctly poor fit for the Republican Party. His planned Poor People’s March in 1968 would have aimed to pressure Congress into allocating much more effort into anti-poverty legislation. Republicans would not have backed this as they had voted against LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. The previous year, he advocated for a fundamental change in American society: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered” (Berman, 2013).
Martin Luther King Jr. was neither a conservative nor a Republican. He was a socialist, but now he is America’s favorite socialist. Historically, those who claim King was a Republican would be much better off making the case for Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington as black conservatives.
King and Vietnam
Towards the end of his life, Dr. King’s relations with the White House had soured, and Vietnam was the reason why. In 1967, he came out against the war and was not diplomatic in his criticism: he went as far as to compare the tactics of the U.S. Army to those of the Nazis. This outraged Americans of many political stripes and was a significant factor in his loss of popularity. Time called his anti-war speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi” (Berman, 2013). Although many Americans would come to share King’s criticisms of the Vietnam War, they objected to the Nazi comparison strongly.
Adultery and Plagiarism
Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t perfect and this makes him human. King indeed carried on extramarital affairs as he was a charming man who was always polite around women. His status as a hero in the black community also attracted women to him. However, contrary to some claims, he didn’t carry on relations with white prostitutes and occasionally beat them. For plagiarism, after his death Boston University investigated claims that he had plagiarized his doctoral dissertation and found in 1991 that he had done so for parts of it. However, it is not true that “I Have a Dream” was plagiarized from a speech by black pastor Archibald Carey at the 1952 Republican Convention. There were similarities in portions, but the content of the speech was much different.
The purpose of this post is not to denigrate King. It is to bring reality to a revered man. Make no mistake, what he achieved was tremendous and people are right to identify him as a hero for the civil rights cause. What King provided was the grassroots efforts to pressure America and Washington to reevaluate how they looked at race and to get strong legislation passed to end the Jim Crow system. His efforts at reforming the North via housing were significantly less popular as was his uncompromising view against the Vietnam War, his moralistic view of economics, and his belief in expanding the federal government even further for the poor. Americans choose to remember King for his greatest accomplishments in civil rights, but they people forget the other, more controversial aspects of his legacy on matters that continue to divide us today.
Berman, M. (2013, August 28). The Forgotten Martin Luther King: A Radical Leftist. The Atlantic.
Dupuy, B. (2018, January 15). Most Americans Didn’t Approve of Martin Luther King Jr. Before His Death, Polls Show. Newsweek.
Fact Check: Four Things About King. Snopes.
Newport, F. (2006, January 16). Martin Luther King Jr.: Revered More After Death Than Before. Gallup News Service.