How Martin Luther King Became a Conservative Cultural Icon

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Forty-five years ago this week (April 4, 1968), Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a single rifleman’s bullet on a balcony at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time of his death, King was considered more social pariah than national hero. A 1966 poll showed that he had a 33% favorable to 63% unfavorable rating. Many commentators questioned his relevance after he finally decided to follow his conscience and publicly oppose the Vietnam War. Financial supporters abandoned him when he shifted justice-gaze towards the slums of Chicago where he shed light on Northern racism and economic inequality. Politicians were aghast at his pending attempt to disrupt D.C. political life with a nonviolent army of poverty stricken Americans from across the country. He was only in Memphis to support striking unionized garbage workers in their efforts to improve workplace safety and improved wages. These are hardly conservative-endorsed causes, yet King is almost universally seen as an American hero.

Throughout the course of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. opposed war, lamented the size of the American military, supported the concept of full employment, questioned the legitimacy of free-market capitalism, sought after increased spending on government social programs, and more. So how did he become a conservative cultural icon? For that, we can thank Ronald Reagan.

In August and October of 1983, after an arduous fight lasting fifteen years, Congress finally passed a bill designating the first Monday after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (the third Monday of January) a federal holiday. On the day the Senate passed the bill, President Reagan unenthusiastically expressed at a televised press conference, “Since [Congress] seem[s] bent on making it a holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I would—I’ll sign that legislation when it reaches my desk.” (Congress Quarterly Weekly Report, October 12, 1983) His reluctant affirmation of the bill mirrored many (but not all) conservative politicos who saw the holiday simply as a symbolic nod to the success of the civil rights movement and out of respect for the contributions of their minority constituencies. In other words, they initially considered the holiday a “Black” holiday.

President Ronald Reagan signs the National King Holiday bill on November 2, 1983. (National Archives)
President Ronald Reagan signs the National King Holiday bill on November 2, 1983. (National Archives)

Despite his historical opposition to King and the civil rights legislation and his ambivalence towards the creation of the National King Holiday, President Reagan invited the King family, distinguished members of Congress, and several members of his to witness the signing of the King holiday bill in the Rose Garden of the White House. Rather than wallow in his ambivalence, Reagan’s signing ceremony speech would pull Martin Luther King’s legacy into a massive bear hug, transforming King from a thorn in the side of conservatives into a conservative cultural icon.

In his reflections on Dr. King, Reagan declared, “Dr, King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and Black Americans, as he put it, ‘Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone.’” Celebrating the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sweeping vision of “I Have a Dream,” and attributing the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act to King’s leadership, Reagan proclaimed that because of Martin Luther King Jr., “The conscience of America had been touched [and] people had begun to treat each other not as Blacks and Whites, but as fellow Americans.”

For Reagan, Dr. King struggled for a “colorblind” society that guaranteed the “freedom” of all citizens. Americans can “take pride in the knowledge that we … recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it.” Absent from Reagan’s reflections is any mention of King’s commitment to addressing economic inequality, his pacifist opposition to the Vietnam War, and any of his post ’63 activity; and with good reason. Reagan essentially sells the King Holiday to conservatives by painting King’s legacy as commiserate with conservative values. Many conservatives after Reagan would follow suit, invoking King’s name in their opposition to Affirmative Action, suggesting that King embraced a philosophy of self-help, and claiming that King wanted to change hearts, not laws. These distortions of King’s legacy have allowed conservatives to embrace King in a way they could not before Ronald Reagan created the blueprint. So, the next time Glenn Beck holds a conservative rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, or Sarah Palin tweets the content of one’s character quote on King’s birthday, or Rush Limbaugh declares that King would oppose affirmative action because it is reverse discrimination, be sure to say a word of thanks (or a curse under your breath) to President Ronald Reagan, the reason Martin Luther King Jr. is a conservative cultural icon.

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