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.

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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:

Ronald Reagan was one of the first conservatives to invoke the words of MLK to support conservative policies.

“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.”

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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 War. He called for the nationalization of some industries and a guaranteed annual wage.

His most audacious plan was a forerunner of today’s Occupy Movement. By 1968, King was preparing to lead a “Poor People’s Campaign” to Washington. A coalition of poor blacks, Native Americas, Latinos and whites from Appalachia would occupy Washington and force the government to take money spent on Vietnam and use it instead to combat poverty. The campaign muddled on after King’s assassination, but quickly fell apart without his leadership.

In a documentary entitled “Citizen King,” the leader is shown speaking to a church audience, as he prepared his nonviolent army of poor people for Washington.

“It didn’t cost the nation a penny to open lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to give us the right to vote,” he said. “But it will cost the nation billions to feed and house all of its citizens. The country needs a radical redistribution of wealth.”

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King’s aides defend leader’s record

Some of King’s closest aides are baffled at the argument that King opposed affirmative action policies. They say the public record is clear: King openly supported such policies.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group he led, created a program called Operation Breadbasket that called for companies to hire a certain number of blacks. In King’s book “Why We Can’t Wait,” he recounts his travels to India where he expressed approval for that government’s attempts to remedy the historical discrimination of “the untouchables” through compensatory programs.

King also argued that just as the nation had given preferential treatment to soldiers returning from World War II through the GI Bill, it should do the same for blacks in the realms of jobs and education.

“A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro,” King wrote in “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.”

Conservatives don’t like to talk about that version of King, say those who knew the civil rights leader.

“This is just an attempt to hoodwink people about who Martin Luther King Jr. was,” says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, part of King’s inner-circle at the SCLC.

“He would have never advocated that people should be judged by their color,” Lowery says. “He never advocated that. What he advocated was that people should not be discriminated against because of their color. That’s entirely different.”

The notion that self-help and liberal politics can’t co-exist is wrong as well, Lowery says. They’ve existed for years in the black church, the institution that spawned King.

“We always encouraged folks to help themselves,” Lowery says of black pastors. “The more we help ourselves, the more we prove our worth. The church said the Lord helps those who help themselves. I’ve heard that all my life.”

Clarence Jones, who was a speechwriter and attorney for King, says King’s position on affirmative action would have evolved. He says he believes that King would support affirmative action policies that help poor people, not one particular race.

He was already headed that way with the “Poor People’s Campaign,” says Jones, author of “Behind the Dream,” which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of King’s dream speech.

King had already decided during the last year of his life to push for the congressional passage of an economic bill of rights for the poor, Jones says. The SCLC debated whether to include nonblacks in the bills of rights but King insisted that they do so.

“We came to the conclusion that the economic circumstances of poor people transcended the issue of color and race,” Jones says.

Conservatives who insist that King’s primary aim was to change people, not laws, don’t understand King or American history, others say.

If King’s primary aim was to change hearts, not laws, the movement would not have had as many victories, says Clayborne Carson, who was chosen by King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to edit her husband’s papers.

Conservatives say MLK's primary goal was to change hearts, not law. Here King shakes hands with President Lyndon Johnson after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“People who gain privileges because of race or status don’t readily give up those privileges and they don’t see them as wrong,” Carson says. “We know for a fact that the South would have never voted out slavery or Jim Crow.”

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Two visions of King

Carson says those who distort King’s legacy aren’t confined to conservatives. Some of King’s biggest supporters subtract vital parts of King’s message.

“At the King Memorial in Washington, you won’t see a single quote about poverty,” says Carson, author of “Martin’s Dream.” “You have a lot of quotes about love and abstract ideas, but translating love to let’s take care of the poor, that’s a step that most people aren’t willing to take.”

What’s happening to King’s message is part of a larger trend in American history: a deliberate attempt to “misremember” race, says Branch, the civil rights author.

“That is the temptation of American history, to say we don’t need to deal with race anymore. We misremembered the Civil War for a 100 years, thinking that it had nothing to do with slavery and that the glorious old wonderful South was like ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ” Branch says.

What Branch calls “misremembering” others call recapturing King’s conservative legacy.

Raney, who wrote the Heritage Foundation article about King’s conservative values, says she did so because she wanted to “reclaim” King for conservatives.

Still, she says as much as she’s read about King, he remains elusive.

“It seems like there are almost two Kings, the earlier one and the later one,” she says.

Both versions of King will be on display this Monday. Forty-five years after his death, one thing has not changed: King’s message is still dividing America.

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