On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump will take the stage at Liberty University to deliver a speech that figures to be a reminder of the complicated relationship between the Grand Ole Party and the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.
Not long ago, it was members of the Republican Party, many of them forlorn Dixiecrats, who led the last bastion of the opposition to establishing a national holiday to honor MLK.
Today, many Republican presidential candidates are taking a different strategy—rewriting history to paint King as a champion of conservative causes. Here are all the times over the past year that those candidates have appropriated the legacy of our nation’s most celebrated civil rights icon.
MLK would have opposed marriage equality
After the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, last June, several candidates made references to King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in defense of their opposition to the ruling. Sen. Marco Rubio, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee all quoted the same argument in King’s famous text about whether citizens have an obligation to follow “unjust” laws.
It goes without saying that King probably never intended the text to be used in defense of denying people equal rights under the law. Yet the argument continues to be a favorite among members of the Christian right.
Sen. Ted Cruz also invoked King’s legacy to oppose LGBTQ equality, in a confrontation with Canadian actor Ellen Page. When Page, who is herself gay, compared the fight for LGBTQ rights to the civil rights movement, Cruz responded by citing King’s “calls upon the conscience of Christians to stand up." Page responded by listing several moments in history in which Christianity was used to justify bigotry. She can now add her conversation with Cruz to that list.
MLK was a Republican
Dr. Ben Carson raised eyebrows when he brought up the question of King’s party affiliation.
“The Republican Party was established as an abolitionist party,” Carson said on New Hampshire radio. “You look at some of the people who have belonged to the Republican Party—you know, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King Jr. It’s really quite an extensive list.”
It is certainly true that many black civil rights leaders chose to ally themselves with the Republican Party during an era when unreconstructed Southerners still played a big role in Democratic politics. But King, an activist committed to pressuring the political class from outside the system, never identified with either party. As Buzzfeed reported at the time of Carson’s comments, historians and the King family alike dispute any claim that King was ever a member of the Republican Party.
Carson has invoked the King legacy in other questionable historical contexts. Recalling King's assassination, in 1968, Carson described a dramatic scene in which he sheltered some of his white high school classmates from rioting that followed the news of King’s death. In November, The Wall Street Journal interviewed several of Carson’s classmates, as well as the teacher of the class in which the incident supposedly took place. None could recall events as Carson described them (but then again, they probably also don’t remember that MLK was a Republican).
MLK would have been 'appalled' by the Black Lives Matter movement
In August, Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, responded to a question about Black Lives Matter by saying: “When I hear people scream, ‘Black lives matter!’ I think, ‘Of course they do, but all lives matter.'” He went on to say, “The whole message that Dr. King tried to present, and I think he’d be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”
Huckabee did not comment on whether he thought it inappropriate that the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery focused so much on the rights of black voters instead of chanting, “All votes matter.”
President Obama won’t live up to MLK’s legacy and destroy ISIS
In a meandering, 550-word Facebook post, Carly Fiorina ticked off a list of reasons she was “angry” with Obama’s ISIS strategy before driving her point directly into this mangled car crash of patriotic sentiment:
“Our nation was founded on a unique premise: that each individual life has value, that we judge an individual by the content of their character, as Martin Luther King said, not by the group to which they belong. Our nation was founded on the idea that each of us has the right to fulfill our potential—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—and our Founders said this right comes from God and should not be taken away by government.”
Aside from having very little to do with ISIS, or even foreign policy in general, Fiorina's implication seems to be that the United States is a country founded with King’s vision of racial equality in mind—a notion that might be called into question by anyone who's ever taken a sixth-grade social studies class.
MLK hates what 'liberal policies' did to 'inner cities'
Of all the Republican candidates, Sen. Rand Paul may have the greatest penchant for citing MLK. As Time magazine noted last April, Paul is especially fond of a quote from King’s 1967 speech about “two Americas” that exist side by side.
The libertarian-minded Paul has used the quote in several contexts, some of which civil rights leaders past and present would probably endorse. For instance, in an op-ed, he referenced King’s speech while describing the stark differences in how white and black Americans interact with the criminal justice system.
Paul’s other uses of the quote are more tenuous. Such was the case at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference, when Paul used the same portion of King’s speech to claim that “liberal policies have failed our inner cities; liberal policies have failed our poor communities. Our schools are not equal, and the poverty gap continues to widen.”
It’s more than a little disingenuous to push a libertarian economic agenda while invoking Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose left-leaning economic philosophy led him to support union rights and a universal basic income. Paul’s references to MLK are made all the more problematic by the senator’s history of opposing key parts of the Civil Rights Act.