The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican. He opposed affirmative action. He grew so radical near the end of his life that he considered renouncing nonviolence.
Which of those statements are true?
None of them. They’re all bogus. But that won’t stop them from circulating among some Americans on MLK Day. As the United States commemorates King’s birthday on Monday, most people will celebrate the actual man. But others will invoke a phantom version of King that materializes on Facebook pages, e-mail links, Twitter feeds and the occasional billboard.
The phantom version speaks and acts in ways that have no relation to the man. Myths are inevitable with many historical figures, but with King they short-change the scope of his vision and drain him of his humanity, say King historians and those who knew him.
King is still misunderstood even by those who claim to know him, says the Rev. Lewis Baldwin, a historian and authority on King.
“Each year we celebrate a man whom we have not come to understand,” says Baldwin, a professor emeritus of religious studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
Consider what follows as “mythbusting MLK,” a debunking of the five most persistent misperceptions about the civil rights leader.
Myth 1: He grew more radical in his last years
Here’s the standard take on King’s evolution: He started off focusing on racism, then grew more radical in the last three years of his life as he turned against the Vietnam War and focused on poverty.
You could call it the “I had a dream but it’s turned into a nightmare” narrative.
But that take is wrong. King didn’t become a radical; he was already a radical much earlier than people realize, some King scholars say.
One scholar cites a little-known speech King gave in New York on December 17, 1964, not long after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. King called for “a broad alliance of all forces — Negro and white” to mobilize against economic injustice and referred to his trip to Scandinavia, where he received the award.
“In both Norway and Sweden, whose economies are literally dwarfed by the size of our affluence and the extent of our technology, they have no unemployment and no slums,” King said. “There, men, women and children have long enjoyed free medical care and quality education. This contrast to the limited, halting steps taken by our rich nation deeply troubled me.”
King didn’t get radicalized by the urban riots of the 1960s or Vietnam; he was already a radical, says Thomas Jackson, author of “From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice.”
“As early as 1964 he is calling for war on poverty,” says Jackson, who came across King’s New York speech in the archives of New York University.
King’s remarks also caught the attention of another civil rights leader, Jackson says.
“Malcolm X heard about it and said something to the effect that it was the best thing he ever heard King say,” Jackson says.
Even before he became a civil rights leader, King was thinking deeply of economics, not just race.
In a letter familiar to scholars, King tells his future wife, Coretta Scott, that he welcomes the day when “there will be a nationalization of industry … and a better distribution of wealth.”
In the letter, dated July 18, 1952, King writes:
“I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.”
There are rumors that King considered abandoning nonviolence at the end of his life. But no credible King scholar says that’s true. What changed was King’s pessimism about white willingness to address racism and poverty.
His tactics also evolved, becoming more confrontational. King was organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign” when he was assassinated. He planned to lead a multiracial alliance of the poor in a second March on Washington. But this time marchers would shut down the functioning of the federal government if need be to force politicians to spend less money on Vietnam and more on addressing poverty.
King was considering tactics such as directing demonstrators to stop traffic and chain themselves to pillars in the halls of Congress, says Baldwin, the King historian.
“He was looking for more radical means of nonviolence,” Baldwin said, “but he never gave up on nonviolence.”
Myth 2: He was a Republican
Somewhere in America someone is probably erecting a billboard that makes this claim: King was a Republican.
It’s virtually a King holiday ritual.
“It’s one of those things that will never die,” says Judd Legum, editor-in-chief of ThinkProgress.
The notion, though, that King was a Republican is absurd, King scholars say.
“Dr. King never believed in any kind of party identification,” Baldwin says. “He never allowed himself to become closely aligned with partisan politics. He occasionally said that that both the Democratic and Republican Party had betrayed his people.”
The idea that King was a Republican is built on a historical sleight of hand. King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther “Daddy” King Sr., was a Republican. But so were many blacks in the early to mid-20th century. Then the Republican Party was the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Liberator. That party identification, though, started shifting in the mid- to late 20th century as Democratic presidents began championing civil rights.
(Daddy King publicly shifted allegiance to the Democrats when President John F. Kennedy displayed public sympathy for his son.)
Legum, in an essay for ThinkProgress, cited a 1958 interview where King said, “I’m not inextricably bound to either party.”
King, though, was particularly critical of the Republican Party’s selection of Barry Goldwater, an archconservative, as its 1964 presidential candidate.
King worked closely with President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, to help spur the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, two critical civil rights laws championed by Johnson. When Johnson ran for president in 1964, King let the public know which party he preferred, Legum says.
“He was basically campaigning for Johnson in 1964,” Legum says of King.
Would King still be nonpartisan today? Maybe. But some King scholars say he would have been sympathetic to Bernie Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders is a self-described “Democratic Socialist,” a label that also has been applied to King.
King called for universal health care and education, as well as a radical redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom, Baldwin says.
“He was talking about a Democratic Socialist agenda, what Bernie Sanders is talking about,” Baldwin says. “Dr. King’s ideas correspond well with Bernie Sanders.”
But you probably won’t see a billboard this week saying King is a Democratic Socialist.
Myth 3: King opposed affirmative action
Remember this line in King’s most famous speech?
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Conservative sure do. Some of them cite those words as evidence that King opposed affirmative action.
But that notion is also wrong, King scholars say.
King may not have used the words “affirmative action” — that term was coined by President Kennedy — but he often supported the concept and would use the GI Bill as an example. King would often remind people that the U.S. government adopted a policy of preferential treatment for World War II veterans when it paid for their college educations through the bill.
King’s sense of affirmative action was not something that only benefited blacks, Baldwin says.
“He was not talking about race-based affirmative action. He was concerned about need-based affirmative action,” Baldwin says. “If you look at his call for an economic bill of rights, he was talking about affirmative action that benefited all people that were poor and deprived.”
King distilled that vision in a 1965 interview with Playboy magazine reprinted in a “Testament of Hope,” a collection of King’s essential writings. After talking about the need for the government to adopt a multibillion-dollar program for the disadvantaged of all races, he says:
“At the present time, thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques. Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done.
“The unemployed, poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro.”
Myth 4: He believed in equality for all
There was one group of people King couldn’t quite judge by the content of their character: women.
One of the worst kept secrets of the movement is that King was a sexist.
King’s sexism could be seen most clearly through his ambivalent relationship with one of the civil rights movement’s most crucial leaders, Ella Baker.
Baker is a legend within the civil rights community, but she eventually left the Southern Christian Leadership Conference because King wouldn’t allow a woman to be a leader within the organization, says Gwendolyn Simmons, who knew King and wrote an essay about her own activism and association with King entitled, “Martin Luther King Jr. Revisited: A Black Power Feminist Pays Homage to the King.”
Baker was a talented organizer with the NAACP who had risked her life going into small towns in the South to organize. She was also instrumental in forming the SCLC, raising money and even suggesting its creation to King after he first became nationally visible, Simmons says.
Baker became the acting executive director of the SCLC, but King would not make her position permanent. After she left the SCLC, King appointed a man as the permanent executive director, Simmons says.
“She was fed up with the male chauvinism,” says Simmons, a religion professor at the University of Florida.
But wherever Baker or other women went in the civil rights community, they were bound to encounter resistance, Simmons says. The civil rights community was led by male ministers who didn’t grasp the concept of gender equality. Women weren’t initially allowed to speak at the March on Washington until one of them wrote a letter of protest to the march’s organizer. Sexual harassment and even sexual assaults were not uncommon, she says.
“Good Lord, the sexism was rampant. Even Malcolm [X] was a sexist,” says Simmons, who later joined the Nation of Islam.
King’s choice of wife, though, showed that he could transcend his sexism, Simmons says. Coretta Scott King was an educated, self-possessed woman who trained to be an opera singer. She wasn’t a docile, submissive woman.
“She knew more about nonviolence when they got together than he did,” Simmons says. “She was much more aware of Gandhi.”
King’s sexism, though, doesn’t distract from Simmons’ admiration for him. She also knows about well-documented accounts of his womanizing. But she calls him “brilliant,” a courageous man who followed his conscience, even when it cost him his popularity, and ultimately his life.
“He was a man of his time,” she says. “If King had lived he would have been influenced by the women’s movement and would have been able to make the changes.”
Baldwin, the historian, says King was progressive toward women in other areas.
“He was in favor of women being ordained to the ministry,” Baldwin says. “He was far ahead of most men of his time.”
Myth 5: He was a solemn, serious dude
Try imagining this:
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a cigarette in one hand, a pool stick in the other, bopping his head in time to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”
It’s hard to picture, isn’t it? But not for those who were part of King’s inner circle.
In the history books, King comes off as the stuffy preacher. He seemed to always be in a dark suit, talking in solemn, professorial tones. But King was a fun guy to hang with, says Baldwin, who has written several books on King, including “There is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
King loved soul food and R&B artists like Aretha Franklin and James Brown, and he was an adept mimic and joke-teller, Baldwin says.
“He was the comedian of the civil rights movement,” Baldwin says. “Ralph Abernathy said had not King become a civil rights leader he could have succeeded as a comedian.”
Browse through any good biographies of King and his humor pokes through. There are stories of him mimicking country black preachers whose subjects and verbs never agree, giving aides like Andrew Young nicknames like “Lil’ N*****” and abruptly ending one meeting by telling his staff as he headed to a concert, “I’m sorry, y’all, James Brown is on. I’m gone.”
He was also notorious for giving over-the-top mock eulogies for his aides to break the tension when dangerous campaigns loomed.
In “Martin Luther King, Jr.,” a biography by Peter J. Ling, the author describes one of King’s mock eulogies for Abernathy:
“He would extol the merits of the tragically slain president of the National Association for the Advancement of Eating Chicken. Ralph had no rivals for his crown, King intoned — no one could challenge his pree-minence in the field,” Ling recounted. “When it came to eating chicken, he was a man among men.”
King had a down-home Southern earthiness about him. He loved ribs, cornbread, pickled pig’s feet. When presented silverware with a meal in the company of close friends, he would say “forget this” and proceed to eat with his hands.
“He would eat pig feet out of a jar,” Baldwin says. “Coretta would often scold him for picking food out of the pots when she was cooking.”
King was also a lover of sports, Baldwin says. He was the quarterback on his college team, followed boxing and shot pool.
“We see this iconic figure, this larger-than-life figure,” Baldwin says. “But he was very ordinary in so many ways.”
Be wary, then, if you come across a tweet, Facebook post or website that presents a phantom version of King. Go to the source, read his writings and listen to his speeches.
For some historical figures, embellishments add luster to their reputations. But in King’s case, the man — even with his contradictions — is more fascinating than the myth.