Why conservatives call MLK their hero

A growing number of conservatives say MLK was a conservative. Many cite five words from King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Story highlights

  • Conservatives claim that MLK's conservative legacy is ignored
  • MLK opposed affirmative action, they say
  • His self-help message was conservative, one historian says
  • MLK aide: They are trying to "hoodwink" people
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was called a communist, an outside agitator and a drum major for righteousness.
But now a growing number of people are calling King something else: A conservative icon.
As the nation celebrates King's national holiday Monday, a new battle has erupted over his legacy. Some conservatives are saying it's time for them to reclaim the legacy of King, whose message of self-help, patriotism and a colorblind America, they say, was "fundamentally conservative."
But those who marched with King and studied his work say that notion is absurd. The political class that once opposed King, they argue, is now trying to distort his message.
King's most famous words are the crux of the disagreement.
"He was against all policies based on race," says Peter Schramm, a conservative historian. "The basis of his attack on segregation was 'judge us by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.' That's a profound moral argument."
Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a trilogy on King, says some conservatives are invoking a phantom version of King to avoid dealing with contemporary racial issues.
"They want to claim they understand Dr. King better than Dr. King did," says Branch, author of "Parting the Waters."
A quick look at King's books and speeches, Branch and others argue, reveals that his message was not conservative but radical.
The man who started calling King a conservative
Even when King was alive, his opponents distorted his words, Branch says. They would publicly agree with some of his message while undercutting the parts they didn't like.
"Most people who were uncomfortable with his message did not take it head-on and say Dr. King was wrong because his message was so powerful, and near the heart of patriotism. They would say, 'I agree with you except you shouldn't break the law,' or 'you shouldn't mix church and state' or 'stop corrupting the lives of youth,' " says Branch, who just released "The King Years," a book that looks at 18 pivotal events in the civil rights movement.
One of the first leaders to invoke King's message in support of conservative ideas was Ronald Reagan, according to Stephen Prothero, who spotlights that moment in his book "The American Bible," which examines the most famous speeches and texts in American history.
In June of 1985, Reagan cited King's "content of our character" line from the "I Have a Dream" speech to argue in a speech opposing affirmative action that King's vision of a colorblind society would not include racial hiring quotas.
Reagan, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, said in a radio address on civil rights:
"The truth is, quotas deny jobs to many who would have gotten them otherwise but who weren't born a specified race or sex. That's discrimination pure and simple and is exactly what the civil rights laws were designed to stop."
Ronald Reagan was one of the first conservatives to invoke the words of MLK to support conservative policies.
Prothero says King's "I Have a Dream" speech has since been invoked by conservative leaders such as William Bennett and Rush Limbaugh to argue that affirmative action equals reverse discrimination.
King a defender of traditional values?
The arguments for King's conservative legacy, however, have acquired deeper layers over the years.
In a 2006 essay entitled "Martin Luther King's Conservative Legacy," Carolyn. G. Raney argues that King's message was "fundamentally conservative" on other levels.
In that essay, published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, she writes: "King's primary aim was not to change laws, but to change people, to make neighbors of enemies and a nation out of divided races. King led with love, not racial hatred."
Raney says King's message was conservative because he believed in a fixed moral law. She quotes from King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," in which King says a just law was "a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God."
"Conservatives tend to be more deeply religious, to hold to fundamental truths appealing to higher principles and appealing to the founding of America," Raney says in an interview. "More liberals seem to embrace the idea of moral relativism."
Those who argue for King's conservative credentials include a member of the civil rights leader's family.
Alveda King, a niece of King, is an author and activist who has talked often about her uncle's message at conservative rallies. She says he was a believer in traditional values who went on record criticizing homosexuality, defending the traditional family and opposing abortion.
"Martin Luther king Jr. was a preacher and a liberator," she says. "It's natural for what's called conservative values to align with who he was because he was a pastor. He was not so much a fiscal conservative, but more so a moral conservative."
King's original civil rights message was also conservative because he preached self-help to beleaguered black communities, argues Joel Schwartz, an author of an essay entitled "Where Dr. King Went Wrong."
Schwartz says King grew up in a household where his father taught hard work and self-discipline. King championed these virtues, he says. He even criticized black schoolteachers who couldn't speak proper English.
In his last book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community," King said if blacks practiced thrift and wise investment, "the Negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation."
King preached self-help so much because blacks didn't have other options in the early stages of the movement, says Schwartz, author of "Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America's Urban Poor, 1825-2000."
"He was not in a position to say to blacks, 'Vote the scoundrels out of office, and elect people who benefit you' because blacks couldn't vote," Schwartz says. "The only thing they could possibly control was their own behavior and the ability to take advantage of the opportunities available to them."
King "went wrong" when he abandoned his self-help message during the last years of his life as he took the civil rights movement North, Schwartz says. He and some of his aides were so disheartened by the dysfunction of the black underclass in the North that they had to look for another solution.
"How could self-help be the road to success for people who," King and his aides had concluded, "seemed bent on destroying themselves," Schwartz writes.
"The only answer the later King could see to these economic and social problems was for government to step in and make things better."
King talks about redistribution of wealth
King took the movement to the North starting in 1966 when he led a campaign against urban poverty in Chicago. The evolution of his message is evident in his books and speeches.
Most historians think King was getting more radical, not conservative, at the end of his life.
King concluded that racism wasn't the only problem: War and poverty were the others. He came out against the Vietnam