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C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. January 29, 2012

Republican Travis Rowley says Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican

When you're famous and admired, everyone wants to claim you as their own.

Take the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a column that appeared on the week of the slain civil rights leader's birthday, Travis Rowley, chairman of the Rhode Island Young Republicans, complained that liberals and Democrats consistently try to paint conservatives, Republicans and, in fact, all of America, as racist.

Rowley said the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Dick Harpootlian, criticized Republicans for holding a presidential debate in the state on King's birthday, even though Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus held a debate among the Democratic presidential candidates on King's birthday in 2008.

"It seems like a fitting moment to remind everyone that Martin Luther King was a Republican and, if alive, would probably have come to his own party's defense by telling Harpootlian to stop being such a whiny, hyper-sensitive, little weasel," wrote Rowley.

In recent history, blacks have overwhelmingly voted Democratic. So was King, who was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39, really a Republican?

Some historical context might be illuminating.

The parties of King's era are not necessarily the parties we have today. King's father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., was a longtime Republican, not surprising at a time when most Southern Democrats supported segregation.

And when the landmark Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, it was approved on the basis of geography, not party. It became law only after Republicans and Democrats outside the South joined forces to overturn a filibuster by Southern senators.

Of the 22 Southern senators, 21 voted against it.  All but one of the opponents were Democrats. Outside the South, only 1 of the 46 Democrats and 5 of the 32 Republicans in the U.S. Senate opposed it.

But here we're focusing on the very narrow question of whether it's accurate to call the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a Republican.

Rowley's claim has been made before by other Republicans. When our PolitiFact colleagues in Tennessee and Texas checked the claim, both ruled it to be False. We'll repeat some of their points.

Perhaps the best argument in Rowley's favor comes from King's niece, Alveda C. King, who said in 2008 that "during his lifetime, [King] was a Republican."

But in 2008, King's son, Martin Luther King III, said it was "disingenuous to imply that my father was a Republican. He never endorsed any presidential candidate, and there is certainly no evidence that he ever even voted for a Republican. It is even more outrageous to suggest he would support the Republican Party of today, which has spent so much time and effort trying to suppress African American votes in Florida and many other states."

PolitiFact found that King scholars agree with King's son.

"I've not seen any evidence that MLK Jr. was a Republican but if he registered to vote it would have been as a Republican in Alabama simply because the Dems. would not allow black voters. Throughout the [Civil Rights] movement he worked with the northern Dem. Party," said Dr. Kenneth W. Goings, professor and past chairman of the Department of African American and African Studies at Ohio State University, in an e-mail to PolitiFact Tennessee.

Thomas Jackson, a history professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, told PolitiFact that blacks began turning toward the Democratic party during the New Deal. He called King a " 'tax and spend' democratic socialist."

"He wanted the nation to spend billions of dollars directly to employ the unemployed when the private sector failed, and a vigorous mixture of affirmative action and anti-poverty programs championed by the liberal-left, and targeted federal spending in impoverished areas, especially the nation's slums," said Jackson.

(His proposal to spend $50 billion over 10 years -- $357 billion at today's prices -- to help the disadvantaged of all races was outlined in a 1965 Playboy interview.)

And King reported in his autobiography that he wrote to one supporter in 1956 saying, "In the past, I always voted the Democratic ticket."

King's refusal to endorse one particular party also suggests that he had more important matters to deal with than partisan politics -- he wanted an end to racial discrimination, no matter which party delivered it.

In an e-mail response, Rowley highlighted the comments of Alveda King and King's father's Republican roots. And he cited other sources who suggested why King should have been a Republican. But they didn’t prove that he was.

When we asked Rowley whether he thought King's plan to spend billions to help minorities would be embraced by today's Republican party or attacked as socialism, he said it would depend on how the money would be spent.

"There are 'spending' methods that don't result in socialist practices," he said, citing two examples: urban law enforcement to provide "the safety needed for a prosperous community" and school vouchers to "give parents the option to rescue their children from failing public school systems that have been destroyed by the Democrat-Teachers Union alliance."

"The argument over which party MLK would affiliate with today is another story. And admittedly debatable," he added in a subsequent e-mail.

Our ruling

We can certainly envision King being willing to vote against the Southern Democrats who furiously promoted segregation and voting for Northern Republicans who worked to make equal rights a reality.

But neither automatically make King a Republican, especially when, as a civil rights leader, he apparently wouldn't let himself be pigeon-holed into either political party.

In short, Rowley and other advocates for the King-was-really-a-Republican theory haven't proven their case. So we will follow the lead of the two previous PolitiFact analyses and rule that Rowley's claim is False.

(Get updates from PolitiFactRI on Twitter. To comment or offer your ruling, visit us on our PolitiFact Rhode Island Facebook page.)

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources, "Travis Rowley: Race-Baiting Democrats," Jan. 21, 2012, accessed Jan. 23, 2012

E-mails, Travis Rowley, chairman, Rhode Island Young Republicans, Jan. 21, 24, 25, 2012, "Civil Rights Act of 1964," accessed Jan. 23, 2012, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican," National Black Republican Association Newsletter, Civil Rights History Edition, Feb. 2, 2011, accessed Jan. 24, 2012, "Houston group says Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican," Jan. 17, 2011, accessed Jan. 23, 2012, "Another Republican claims that Martin Luther King Jr. was part of the GOP," Jan. 23, 2012, accessed Jan. 23, 2012

A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, 1990, pp 366 and 367.

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Republican Travis Rowley says Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican

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