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What would MLK say about Trump and the Republican Party?

What would MLK say about Trump and the Republican Party?
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Many Republicans like to claim Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a supporter of the party. However, the party of Lincoln is long gone. It left before the civil rights movement, though some might need incidents like The Capitol building insurgency to further convince them of this. 

In fact, Republicans are found invoking King to deflect claims that the party has discriminatory tendencies. During his 2020 election speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package GOP votes in unison against COVID-19 relief bill Senate approves sweeping coronavirus measure in partisan vote MORE (R-Ky.) said, “When I witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington speech as an intern back in 1963, I dreamed about doing big things to help my state and our country. I never imagined Kentuckians would make me the longest-serving senator in our state’s history.”

King would probably balk at this. In his autobiography, King stated, “The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction and extremism.” This statement was a scathing one directed at the 1964 Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, but it seems very germane to today. In fact, King statements seem to align more with the language of Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and supporters. In his book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?”, King stated, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together.” King understood that race and social class are inextricably linked and that societal problems cannot be solved without “radical redistribution of economic and political power.” 

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King made other profound statements that are relevant to the current state of America. It is clear that his policy prescriptions for tackling COVID-19, health disparities and an economic downtown would center on his support for affordable health care and a guaranteed income. Reflecting on health disparities that seemed to predict the racial gap in COVID-19 diagnoses and deaths. King referred to health care as the most “shocking and inhumane.” His words continue to be a rallying cry for supporters of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which is a policy that Republicans do not overwhelmingly support

In an often-overlooked part of King “I Have a Dream” speech, he said the following about policing and criminal justice reform: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Despite Blacks being 3.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police when they are not attacking or have a weapon, the racial gap was even wider during the civil rights movement. 

Collectively, these statements should make it clear why Martin Luther King, III, has called classifying his father as Republican as “disingenuous.” So, given these statements that many might only find among the progressive wing of the Democratic party, why do people continuously say that King was a Republican? 

Well, King's father is often used as the familial link. King, Sr., came of age during cessations for Black liberation. King came of age during Jim Crow. Democrats started to shift their ideologies at the local and state levels and with the election of President John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE over then Republican Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960 became the party of civil rights. King, Sr., like many Black Americans, shifted their allegiances from the waning Republican Party of Lincoln to a progressive Democratic Party of civil rights. In the 1960 election, King, Sr. reported supporting Kennedy’s election, particularly after he helped secure King release from prison following an arrest during a peaceful sit-in.

King, Sr., obviously had a big influence on his son, similar to the way King influenced his children. Civil Rights seem to be in the King family DNA. I think it is more about grappling with being Black in America and aiming to be the change they want to see in the world. King and his father’s experiences with politics and social change mirror those of many Black American families. It is true that Lincoln’s Republican Party supported emancipation. After Lincoln’s assassination, however, they did not effectively follow through with reparations. After the 1876 election, some Republicans negotiated with southern Democrats and bartered on the backs of Black liberation to maintain the presidency. The Compromise of 1877 effectively ended Reconstruction and implemented Jim Crow. It also inhibited Black political representation. It would take nearly a century to reach the same number of Congressional Black elected officials as there were during Reconstruction. King stated, “The Declaration of Independence implied, and later the Emancipation Proclamation promised, meaningful freedom to African Americans. But the promise was never fulfilled.”

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Despite these decisions, Republicans were able to hang onto the Black vote through the early party of the 20th century. In the 1944 presidential election, the Black vote was evenly split among Republicans and Democrats. However, Republican support declined as lynchings proliferated across the country, segregation illuminated racial disparities in housing, education and work and New Deal policies largely excluded Blacks. By the time of Brown vs. the Board of Education, roughly 60 percent of Black Americans voted Democrat and have not looked back since. While there has been some increasing support for Republicans among Blacks, like in 1972 and 1984, it has never reached over 20 percent.

If Republicans want to claim King they should properly honor his legacy by acknowledging the current ramifications of systemic racism and formally renouncing white supremacy by creating a federal hate group registry. They should also help advance a policy agenda that centers racial equity in criminal justice, health, wealth and education. One thing is definitely clear — Republicans can fulfill the legacy of Lincoln and King by signing onto reparations bills and finally dealing with what King calls “a bad check… marked ‘insufficient funds’ [that] America has given the Negro people.” Then, the Republican Party might be one that King would consider. 


Dr. Rashawn Ray is a David M. Rubenstein fellow at The Brookings Institution and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @SociologistRay.