The Republican Party stands at a crossroads today. The police killing of George Floyd has left Republicans with a choice of continuing to be the party of “law and order” or following the lead of Sen. Mitt Romney and others in their midst who are calling for a reevaluation of the party’s attitudes about race and policing. Thus far, most Republicans seem to be doubling down. Many are misappropriating the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to decry protesters and champion order. In a notable example, President Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, recently deemed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington as “the greatest example that we have seen of peaceful protest,” one that stood in contrast to the “riots” following Floyd’s death.
These references echo how conservatives — especially Republicans — have remembered King. To forestall calls for affirmative action and redistributive policies, they celebrate him as a proponent of a “colorblind” approach to civil rights, obscuring more radical parts of his legacy.
This framing is rooted in how Republicans confronted their political options in the aftermath of King’s assassination in 1968. Then, Republicans faced a choice similar to what they face today: to offer platitudes, criticize protesters or advance meaningful reform. The party chose the first two options, ultimately turning away from calls within the party to fulfill the real legacy of King and setting a course from which the party hasn’t looked back.
While today we think of the Republican Party as a conservative party, especially on racial issues, it was far less clear cut in 1968 — leading to vastly different reactions to King's assassination and the ensuing unrest.
Conservative Republicans quickly placed blame on the civil rights movement itself. South Carolina’s segregationist (and newly converted) Sen. Strom Thurmond accused King and civil rights activists of bringing violence upon themselves. “We are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case,” he wrote. Non-Southern conservatives like California Gov. Ronald Reagan likewise asserted that King’s “murder began with our first acceptance of compromise with the law.” Here they reflected the views of around a third of Americans polled in April 1968 who “felt” King “brought it on himself.”
Deeply affected by King’s assassination, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller reacted very differently, showing another path forward for the Republican Party. Rockefeller, the standard-bearer for the Republican left — offered a heartfelt eulogy for King, with whom he had had friendly dealings throughout his tenure. “Four days ago, this nation, conceived in liberty, witnessed with horror and grief the death of a man who had dedicated his whole life to the proposition that all men are created equal” the governor lamented, modeling his oration closely on the Gettysburg Address. Rockefeller channeled Abraham Lincoln’s words in an emotional call to arms: “[I]t is for us, the living, to pledge ourselves to the cause for which he gave the last full measure of devotion, as we highly resolve that he shall not have died in vain.”
In fact, King’s death contributed significantly to Rockefeller’s 11th-hour decision to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination. While his bid was a fruitless uphill struggle, he provided his party an alternative direction — one that fully embraced the pleas of black America and stood strongly for civil rights. While this had once been a fairly common posture for Republicans, and still had significant adherents like Rockefeller, Michigan Gov. George Romney (Mitt’s father) and Sens. Jacob Javits and Clifford Case, the reactions to the uprisings following King’s death in more than 100 cities showed the balance of power shifting in the party.
Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew had once been in Rockefeller’s camp, styling himself a champion of progressive Republicanism, leading a draft movement to get Rockefeller into the presidential race and securing 70 percent of the black vote in his 1966 victory against a racially conservative Democratic opponent. But King’s assassination pushed him to the right, and his response helped propel him to Republican stardom. Speaking to civil rights leaders in Baltimore, Agnew focused on the “riots” that followed King’s killing. Accusing black radicals of leading the country toward “a racial civil war,” Agnew, making a false equivalence, turned his fire on the civil rights activists: “I publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all white racists. I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists. This, so far, you have not been willing to do.”
Richard Nixon, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, tried to choose a middle ground that split the difference between the factions in his party, as evidenced by his perfunctory statement in response to the news. Celebrating the civil rights luminary as “devoted to the principle of peaceful, nonviolent change,” he presented King as standing for orderly “peaceful progress” rather than revolution. But this language revealed that Nixon was tilting toward his party’s right-wing flank. Emphasizing King’s devotion to “peaceful progress” fit with his campaign appeals to restore peace and tranquility — couched in the racially loaded phrase “law and order” — amid the growing turmoil of the late 1960s.
Nixon had once been a moderate champion of civil rights, but he recognized — and wanted to capitalize upon — widespread white fears about urban unrest, campus radicalism and black militancy. Rather than using King’s death as a spur for enhanced civil rights activism, he enveloped it within his broader pitch to social conservatism and lawfulness. In part because of its success, Nixon’s rhetoric previewed and shaped the platitudinal engagements with King’s memory that have become commonplace over time — where King is championed for his peaceful activism, while advocates of black power such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers are derided. This valorization of King and his methods is used to stymie calls for further political action.
Republicans like Nixon and Agnew — who would join Nixon’s ticket that summer — foreshadowed the direction in which the party was moving. They overwhelmingly ignored Rockefeller’s ideas, squandering the chance to bind their party to a more racially liberal engagement with King’s memory.
The progressive wing of the GOP faltered and almost wholly disappeared after 1968. While a small band of moderates — such as the Ripon Society — resisted some elements of Nixon’s approach, especially his “Southern strategy,” their voices were quiet and muffled. As the GOP moved increasingly to the right under Nixon and especially Reagan, with the white South and racial conservatives becoming reliable Republican bastions, complaints by moderate Republicans fell on deaf ears. Rockefeller himself reflected the increasingly conservative trajectory of both his party and the nation. In the early 1970s, under his leadership, New York installed enacted drug and crime laws that disproportionately affected racial minorities. Even the left and center of the GOP moved decidedly to the right.
Racial conservatism also remained prominent in the Democratic Party, largely as a result of Alabama Gov. George Wallace. His 1972 presidential campaign, ended by an attempted assassin’s bullet, centered on opposing “forced busing” and other affirmative action policies.
In 1968, Republicans had a choice following a tragedy that highlighted racial injustice. They could have chosen to follow Rockefeller’s prescriptions and recommitted themselves to civil rights. They did not. Rockefeller Republicanism has retreated from view, replaced by a colorblind conservatism and superficial nods to King rather than any serious effort to fulfill his legacy.
Many of today’s conservatives calling for another King, or using selective King quotations to criticize Black Lives Matter activists, rather than focusing on the issues motivating them to protest, are invoking a popular, sanitized memory of King. They are consciously choosing to appropriate his language and reject his calls for action. This tactic enables — and has long enabled — politicians and voters to trumpet order and exhibit faux outrage at disorder, rather than face up to endemic racial inequalities.
But with Mitt Romney joining protesters in the streets and declaring that black lives matter and Trump in the White House proclaiming “law and order,” the party must once again choose what path to take.