By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006
When a black conservative group ran a radio ad proclaiming that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican, reaction was swift. "We've gotten some e-mails and telephone calls filled with vitriol," said Frances Rice, chairman of the National Black Republican Association. "They've called me Aunt Jemima, a sellout, a traitor to my race."
In the battle for the black electorate, liberals, who make up the overwhelming majority of black voters, have long disagreed with conservatives over ideology, public policy and economic strategies to better the lives of African Americans. But when conservatives placed the civil rights movement in a Republican context, black liberals said, they crossed a line.
"To suggest that Martin could identify with a party that affirms preemptive, predatory war, and whose religious partners hint that God affirms war and favors the rich at the expense of the poor, is to revile Martin," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which the slain civil rights leader helped establish.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who marched with King in the 1960s, called the ads an "insult to the legacy and the memory of Martin Luther King Jr." and "an affront to all that he stood for."
The spot, which ran for a time in the District, Georgia, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania, will soon run again in those areas, as well as in Miami, Orlando and Tampa, Rice said.
The debate surrounding the ad is the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle over the King legacy. Foes of affirmative action, for example, often cite a line from King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 in which he prayed that his children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the "content of their character," an adoption that makes black liberals fume. But in the latest fight, civil rights veterans may be surprised to find that some black conservatives agree with them.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), who is running for the U.S. Senate, denounced the King ad, and Donald E. Scoggins, president of Republicans for Black Empowerment and a former member of the association, said it was a terrible idea.
Black Republicans railed against the radio ads, with the sharpest criticism coming from former members of the black Republican association.
"The vast majority of black Republicans I know would not have approved of the ad," Scoggins said.
In the ad, a black woman says, "Dr. King was a real man," and a second one responds, "You know he was a Republican."
"Dr. King, a Republican?"
The women go on to say that Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan, lumping together those in the South with others in the North who reached out to African Americans with New Deal programs and by desegregating the armed forces.
The backlash was so fierce that Rice stopped answering telephone calls. "We anticipated some controversy, but my goodness, we struck a nerve," she said in an interview from Sarasota, Fla.
"I absolutely do not regret the ads," said Rice, 62, a native of Atlanta, King's hometown. He "absolutely was a Republican," she insisted. "We were all Republicans in those days. The Democrats were training fire hoses on us, siccing dogs on us."
It is true that Southern Democrats, many of whom called themselves "Dixiecrats," blocked the social and political progress of black Southerners for decades. Among them was Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a former local leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd has said he regrets his affiliation.
In 1960, King was arrested for trespassing during a sit-in and held in Georgia's Reidsville prison. Fearing for his son's life, Martin Luther King Sr. appealed to presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to secure his release.
When King was freed, his father vowed to deliver 10 million votes to the Democrat, even though Kennedy was only a reluctant supporter of civil rights. That began four decades of black people voting for liberals.
The younger King voted for Kennedy, and for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson four years later. In that election, King publicly denounced the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater.
Today, the vast majority of black voters are Democrats, including former ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and former presidential hopeful Jesse L. Jackson, two former King aides.
That is why the ad was "a joke," said Christopher Arps, a former spokesman for Rice and the association. "Anyone with any sense knows that most black people were Republican at one time. But it's a far stretch to think that in the '60s Martin Luther King was a Republican."
Arps and Scoggins resigned from the association board last year when they disagreed with Rice on a separate issue. She wanted to support President Bush when he came under fire for his administration's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
"In terms of what we're trying to do, encourage more blacks to look at the Republican Party, I didn't think we could do that in an in-your-face-type way," Scoggins said. "There were bodies floating in the street."
In addition to Scoggins and Arps, at least four other members resigned. Rice questioned their fortitude. The group was founded so that black conservatives could assert themselves, she said, and "when it came time to do something, some stepped back."
"It was a 'my way or the highway' sort of thing," Scoggins said. "I was crushed when this thing happened because it turned out to be completely the opposite of what I thought it would be."