With President Barack Obama joined at the Lincoln Memorial last Wednesday by fellow former Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King's speech 50 years ago, a few political observers pose the question, "Was King actually a Republican?"
It is impossible to know whether King was Democrat, Republican, or independent. His home state of Georgia did not have registration by party, so allegiance to a political party depended on which primaries a voter chose to cast a ballot in.
The Atlanta pastor kept this to himself. His choice of primaries to vote in is not known and, as the intellectual force the civil rights cause, King carefully avoided embracing political candidates.
But there is some evidence as to where his party leanings were, including the observations of the Republican who was Martin Luther King's congressman.
"I believe Dr. King was a Republican," Fletcher Thompson, who represented the Atlanta area in Congress from 1966-72, told Newsmax. "Most of the blacks in the late 1950s and at least up to 1960 were Republican. Our party was sympathetic to them and the Democrats were the ones enforcing 'Jim Crow' laws and segregation."
Thompson, who never personally met King, recalled how C.A. Scott, publisher of the Atlanta World -- the only newspaper in Georgia owned by blacks -- and a close associate of King's, "was a Republican and 'The World' always endorsed me when I ran for Congress."
With the 1960 presidential campaign approaching, New York Times political reporter Tom Wicker noted that "the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had volunteered to lead a voter registration drive among blacks, which King though would produce many new Republican voters."
As to King's favorite candidate, "It is open secret among many Negroes that the Rev. Martin Luther King, if he were to speak out on the subject, would probably indicate a preference for [Republican Richard] Nixon over [Democratic nominee John] Kennedy," The Reporter magazine noted in October 1960.
But Republican hopes of major gains among black voters in 1960 were dashed on October 19, when King was sentenced to four months in Reidsville (Ga.) Penitentiary for violating probation after he was sentenced for driving with an expired license and tags a month before.
Fearing for the minister's life once imprisoned, family and friends pleaded with both major party candidates for help.
Nixon felt King was getting "a bum rap," but he said no to King supporters -- including baseball great Jackie Robinson -- because he felt "it would be completely improper for me or another other lawyer to call the judge."
In contrast, Kennedy called King's wife Coretta and offered to do anything he could for her. Working quietly with Georgia Democratic Gov. Ernest Vandiver, the candidate and campaign manager arranged for the minister to be released from jail.
Dr. King's pastor-father "Daddy" King told reporters, "I had expected to vote against Sen. Kennedy because of his religion. But now he can be my president, Catholic or whatever he is. It took courage to call my daughter-in-law at a time like this. I've got all my votes and I've got a suitcase and I'm going up there and dump them in [Kennedy's] lap."
So he did. Some 63 percent of black voters went for Kennedy and his actions on behalf of King are considered one of the factors in winning one of the closest presidential elections in history.
As Presidents Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson embraced the civil rights cause, King was identified increasingly with the Democratic Party, although he maintained his policy of not endorsing candidates.
Republican orators increasingly denounced him, noting the clergyman's later embrace of the anti-Vietnam War movement and his friendship with the far left, notably King’s close friend and advisor Stanley Levison, a former member of the Communist Party of the U.S.
One who would not denounce him was Fletcher Thompson. He recalled to Newsmax how, when serving on the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a colleague asked if he wanted to see the FBI file delineating King’s ties to Levison and other controversial figures.
"I told him no," said Thompson. "I looked at Dr. King fighting for civil rights as I would someone swimming alone in the ocean. When someone comes along in a lifeboat and reaches out, he's not going to ask if he is, or was, a Communist."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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