Martin Luther King Jr. wrote several books, delivered hundreds of speeches and sermons, and produced a massive quantity of documents and correspondence. The King Papers, a collection of King's writings and published by the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, spans 14 volumes, each about 750 pages.
Yet, for many right-wing politicians, the entirety of King's advocacy is comprised of these 35 words from his "I Have A Dream" speech in Washington, DC:
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.
This single 35-word sentence is then stripped from its context — and everything else King said over his lifetime — to argue that the way to honor King is to not talk or think about race, racism, or racial inequality.
Former President Trump summarized this view during a speech on September 17, 2020:
We embrace the vision of Martin Luther King, where children are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The left is attempting to destroy that beautiful vision and divide Americans by race in the service of political power. By viewing every issue through the lens of race, they want to impose a new segregation, and we must not allow that to happen.
Trump expanded on this thought at a campaign rally in Michigan on October 17, 2020, asserting that King believed that race was something "were not supposed to be thinking about."
Critical Race Theory is a Marxist doct[rine] -- that rejects the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. and all of our great forefathers and instead forces people to judge each other based on race, skin color and other things that we're not supposed to be thinking about.
This view is not unique to Trump. It is a characterization of King's legacy that is shared by other Republican leaders, including Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former Ohio State Treasurer — and current U.S. Senate candidate — Josh Mandel. It's echoed by right-wing organizations like Prager U and Campus Reform.
You don't have to be a history scholar to realize that this is a gross mischaracterization of King's vision. King spoke frequently about racial inequality and the obligation to address racial injustice.
King's "dream" of a society where people could be judged on the "content of their character" was conditioned on economic justice for Black Americans. King asserted that the country needed to make good on the "bad check" it had written to people of color — a portion of King's 1963 speech that is never quoted by Republicans:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.
…And so we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
Was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the fulfillment of King's dream? We don't have to guess. King addressed the status of his dream in a Christmas Eve sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1967, just three months before his assassination:
Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare…I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty.
In addressing economic inequality, did King oppose race-conscious policies? King addressed this in a 1965 interview with writer Alex Haley. In the interview, Haley asked King whether he supported "a multibillion-dollar program of preferential treatment for the Negro." This was King's response:
I do indeed. Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved, and robbed of any wages--potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America's wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation. It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest.
Did King reject the concept of "systemic racism," as many modern conservatives claim? He addressed the topic in a sermon at Washington's National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, four days before his death:
It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle -- the disease of racism permeates and poisons the body politic.
Conservatives today are not required to agree with King and his ideals. But they should not falsify his legacy on the holiday that marks his birth or any other day. That, however, has always been the plan.
How Reagan created the MLK holiday and coopted King's legacy
President Reagan was not a fan of the civil rights movement. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, calling it a "bad piece of legislation" and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, describing it as "humiliating to the South." In 1966, running for governor of California, he defended racial housing discrimination. "If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house," Reagan said, "it is his right to do so."
When Reagan ran for president in 1980, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, said she was "scared that if Ronald Reagan gets into office, we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan."
So it's not a surprise that Reagan had long opposed the creation of a holiday to honor King. During Reagan's first two years in office, he claimed it would cost too much money. But, with reelection approaching and facing increased pressure from the NAACP, Reagan abruptly reversed course and signed a bill creating the holiday into law in 1983.
Just prior to signing the bill, however, Reagan wrote to New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson Jr. (R). Thomson loathed King, calling him "a man of immoral character," and was urging Reagan to veto the holiday. Reagan assured Thomson that the holiday would celebrate the "image" of King and not the "reality."
On the national holiday you mentioned, I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed to them, the perception is reality.
In the years that followed, Reagan crafted a false image of King, claiming that King would have supported policies that he stridently opposed. In a 1986 radio address, Reagan invoked King to defend his attacks on affirmative action, anti-poverty programs, and civil rights enforcement:
We are committed to a society in which all men and women have equal opportunities to succeed, and so we oppose the use of quotas. We want a color-blind society. A society, that in the words of Dr. King, judges people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Decades later, this cynical strategy is still being employed by right-wing politicians.
Honoring King's legacy by banning second graders from reading about King
The absurdity of the right-wing manipulation of King's legacy is on full display in Tennessee. Last month, Popular Information reported on Moms for Liberty, a right-wing dark money group that purports to oppose Critical Race Theory (CRT). A Williamson County, Tennessee chapter of Moms For Liberty filed a complaint arguing that the state's new anti-CRT law prohibits Tennessee second graders from reading several books, including "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington."
Moms for Liberty also objected to the teacher's manual accompanying the King book because it had a negative depiction of Bull Connor, the notorious racist who used hoses and attack dogs to enforce segregation.
Over the weekend, Moms for Liberty hosted the "American Dream Conference." The purpose of the event, which uses King's image, is to discuss "how to put the American Dream back into our education system."
At the conference, Ben Carson, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told the audience to judge people "by the content of their character and not the color of their skin." Another speaker, Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain claimed that the country has "totally begun to destroy [King's] vision of a colorblind society."
Thank you for this piece. Any discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s legacy is incomplete without an understanding of the context of his words and an appreciation for how his work sought to tackle racial and economic injustice as intertwined, inherent flaws in our society.
Thank you for correcting the misperception of MLK Day, and explaining Reagan’s co-opting of the legacy. I grew up in Atlanta and heard King speak to the SCLC in 1964 at the first integrated meeting at The Marriott. It may be a bitter pill for some people to learn that LBJ did the footwork on the Civil Rights Act, and has a legacy beyond escalation of the war in Viet Nam. I am sorry to see the corruption of headlines in the mainstream press when so many fine journalists helped us win the 1964 civil rights battle and uncovered the truth of the horrors of that war. King’s writings deserve much more serious study than they have yet received.