If Martin Luther King Jr. Were Alive Today, Would He Be a Conservative?

Despite efforts to claim him posthumously as one of their own, here are four reasons King would likely be sneered at today by the right.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reacts in St. Augustine, Fla., after learning that the Senate passed the Civil Rights Bill, June 19, 1964.  (AP Photo)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reacts in St. Augustine, Fla., after learning that the Senate passed the Civil Rights Bill, June 19, 1964. (AP Photo)

Here are a few names Martin Luther King Jr. would probably be called if he were still alive and active in politics today.

Race hustler. Socialist. Peacenik. Commie. Blame-America-firster.

Today is the day that we celebrate Dr. King and his dream. He’s been dead long enough, and the cause he fought for now mainstream enough, that the day is celebrated on a bipartisan basis — so much so that Republicans have even, in recent years, tried to claim that King would be one of them.


More likely is this: If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, Republicans would sneer at him in the same fashion they do every other African-American leader who isn’t, well, a Republican — which is to say almost all of them.

This assumes that King would’ve stayed on the same trajectory he was following in 1968, as far as his activities and passions, and maybe something would’ve changed. But let’s remember what he favored and cared about:

Affirmative Action: It’s become fashionable in recent years to suggest that King favored pure color-blindness, and that affirmative action would’ve been at cross-purposes with his dream. Not so. King figured America had some work to do to make up for 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow. Jarvis DeBerry wrote last year:

In his book Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote: “Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.”

Stepen Oates, the author of a biography of King called Let The Trumpet Sound, quotes him thus: “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.”

Modern conservatives, of course, mostly like to pretend that America’s starting line is basically 1969 — everything legally has been more or less fair to African Americans since then, right? If people haven’t achieved success since then, it must be their own fault, right? So singling African Americans out for help must be kind of racist, right? King would have ended up on the other side of such arguments.

Unions: Lest we forget, King was in Memphis — where he was shot to death in April 1968 — because he was supporting the sanitation workers’ strike in that city. It was part of a broader turn toward “economic justice” that King was making at the end of his life, and it would’ve enraged the Mitt Romneys of the world.

Here’s his 1965 speech on The American Dream:

This is why we must join the war against poverty and believe in the dignity of all work. What makes a job menial? I’m tired of this stuff about menial labor. What makes it menial is that we don’t pay folk anything. Give somebody a job and pay them some money so they can live and educate their children and buy a home and have the basic necessities of life. And no matter what the job is it takes on dignity.

I submit to you when I took off on that plane this morning, I saw men go out there in their overalls. I saw them working on things here and there, and saw some more going out there to put the breakfast on there so that we could eat on our way to Atlanta. And I said to myself that these people who constitute the ground crew are just as significant as the pilot, because this plane couldn’t move if you didn’t have the ground crew. I submit to you that in Hugh Spaulding or Grady Hospital, the woman or the man who goes in there to sweep the floor is just as significant as the doctor, because if he doesn’t get that dust off the floor germs will begin to circulate. And those same germs can do injury and harm to the human being. I submit to you this morning that there is dignity in all work when we learn to pay people decent wages.

Such beliefs put him on the side of unions and the folks who fight today for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. That would’ve been intolerable to today’s GOP.

War. King was, simply put, against it. And not just the Vietnam War, either.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

King’s pacifism rendered him cuddlier, posthumously, than Malcolm X. But he didn’t just think that black folks should live by pacifism. He thought the whole country should. Never mind Republicans: What would he be saying about President Obama on this topic?

• And yes, King most certainly would’ve marched with the #BlackLivesMatter folks. (King’s nonviolence was particularly potent in exposing the violence of the system he was protesting.) He probably would’ve ended up interrupting your commute home over the issue — after all, some of the protests he led did affect traffic now and again.

Conservatives are right about one thing: King’s activism was intertwined with his Christianity in a fashion that conservatives tend to understand and embrace better and more often than do liberals. (Read his “speeches.” They are almost always sermons.) Perhaps that would’ve been the opening for him to leave the left and join the right. Who knows?

But we do know this: On race, on economics, on America’s role in the world, Martin Luther King Jr. most likely would’ve been unwelcome among Republicans. That they can embrace him represents progress, but they don’t get to honestly claim him. MLK would almost certainly still be considered a “race hustler” by today’s right.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.