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January 15, 2024

Republicans may claim otherwise, but the civil rights hero was no color-blind conservative.

Civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. relaxes at home in May 1956 in Montgomery, Ala. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Three years ago, Donald Trump celebrated the final Martin Luther King Jr. Day of his presidency by publishing the “1776 Report,” a manifesto for “patriotic education” intended to counter the “toxic propaganda” of “critical race theory.” A few months earlier, Trump had warned that CRT was “a Marxist doctrine that rejects the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.”—worse, it was “child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”

Republicans in several states quickly began to treat it as such, and an anti-CRT moral panic swept the nation. Prominent Republicans predictably followed Trump’s lead: In 2021, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy declared, “Critical race theory goes against everything Martin Luther King Jr. taught us,” and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis invoked King when he introduced the Stop W.O.K.E. Act that reenforced his earlier prohibition of CRT in public schools, which compared the view that systemic racism exists in the United States to Holocaust denial.

It’s not just the far right—self-styled liberal pundits have repeated these talking points. In a recent appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Bill Maher argued that King believed people should “not see race at all, anywhere, for any reason,” then compared “the woke” to the Ku Klux Klan.

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The logic behind these misinterpretations of King is easy to understand: Because King dreamed of a nation in which people would “be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he would, if he were still alive, denounce race-conscious policies like affirmative action. Because he was a champion of civil rights, proponents of a color-blind King infer that he would have rejected CRT’s central premise that the marquee legal victories of the civil rights era, like the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board, were insufficient in bringing about true racial equality in America.

There are, however, two major problems with this reasoning. The first is that it ignores an elementary distinction between means and ends: It is perfectly consistent to dream of a world in which racial differences no longer hold social weight while insisting, as King often did, that such a world cannot come into being without race-conscious reparative policies.

The second, more substantive problem with this interpretation of King is that it’s just not true. It is explicitly contradicted by many of King’s most acclaimed writings and speeches. It is possible that those who celebrate King as some kind of antidote to wokeness do not know this; maybe they think he sprang into existence in 1963, uttered a few sentences about his dreams at the March on Washington, and then disappeared from the political scene, having magically eliminated racism from America forever. But it’s equally possible that many of the politicians and pundits who venerate a reactionary doppelgänger of King are counting on us not to read his writings for ourselves.

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In the final chapter of his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, King endorsed race-conscious reparations “in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures.… The moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery.” King reinforced this position in Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? in 1967: “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

Furthermore, King insisted that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was significant but insufficient for racial equality—an idea we now recognize as a pillar of CRT scholarship. He wrote in 1968, “White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.… Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care—each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct.”

And as we celebrate King on his 95th birthday this year, we confront a bitter irony: The conservatives co-opting King’s racial justice activism while demonizing CRT as a “Marxist doctrine” are reproducing the rhetoric of white segregationists. In Black Struggle, Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the American South, 1948–1968, historian Jeff Woods chronicles Southern segregationists’ “huge legal, political, and public-relations effort” over two decades to “discredit the civil rights movement by associating it with the nation’s greatest enemy, Communism.” The official newspaper of the White Citizens’ Councils, which King described as “a new modern form of the Ku Klux Klan,” ran innumerable stories vilifying King and other civil rights leaders as pawns of the Communist menace. The notorious John Birch Society funded billboards depicting King sitting in a desk at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee with the caption king at communist training school, and sponsored a 1966 propaganda film depicting King as a Communist agent, which concludes that “the civil rights movement, as we know it today, is simply part of a worldwide movement, organized and directed by Communists, to enslave all mankind.”

The parallels to the anti-CRT moral panic are uncanny. After conservative activist Christopher Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight in September 2020, calling CRT “an existential threat to the United States” and demanding that Trump “immediately issue an executive order to abolish critical-race-theory training from the federal government,” Trump brought Rufo to Washington, D.C., to help write that executive order. While Rufo has since aligned himself with DeSantis, Trump’s anti-CRT diatribes have only become more extreme. At a South Carolina rally in 2022, Trump told his audience that the fight against CRT was “a matter of national survival” and that “the fate of any nation ultimately depends upon the willingness of its citizens to lay down—and they must do this—lay down their very lives to defend their country. If we allow the Marxists and communists and socialists to teach our children to hate America, there will be no one left to defend our flag or protect our great country or its freedom.”

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Following in Trump’s footsteps and in line with language prescribed by Rufo, virtually every Republican presidential candidate has condemned CRT as some version of “race-based Marxism.” DeSantis, who last year appointed Rufo to the New College of Florida’s board of trustees, described CRT as “a race-based version of a Marxist-type ideology.” Nikki Haley, recently embroiled in controversy for omitting slavery in her response to a question about the cause of the Civil War, has decried CRT as racist and “un-American” and “based on Marxist teachings.” On his campaign’s podcast, Vivek Ramaswamy discusses CRT with James Lindsay, a prominent conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed “world-level expert in critical race theory” whom Ramaswamy sees as a friend and intellectual ally whose “insight remains at the bleeding edge”; Lindsay’s book Race Marxism, which reached number 14 on Amazon’s bestseller list, likens CRT to the ideology of Nazi Germany and suggests that CRT calls for genocidal violence against white people—a claim Rufo has repeatedly endorsed on Fox News and social media.

For the past three years, the right has used CRT an excuse for authoritarian crackdowns on public education. Oklahoma now prohibits teachers from including in a course the concept that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” Georgia forbids teachers from ever “assigning fault or blame to a race.” These bills would seem to outlaw classroom instruction on Where Do We Go from Here, in which King argued that “white America must assume the guilt for the black man’s inferior status.” The GOP’s anti-CRT campaign, purportedly based on King’s vision of racial justice, has led to attempts to ban books about King’s activism from school curricula.

The point isn’t that King would have agreed with every critical race theorist on every issue. And the point isn’t that America has made no progress toward racial equality in the decades since King was assassinated. As King often said, racial progress in the United States has come a long way but has a long way to go still. The point is that King’s intellectual and political legacy has been manipulated by those who fundamentally disagree with him, distorting his image to sanitize their attacks on the very ideas for which he lived and died. If that weren’t bad enough, their arguments co-opting King to attack CRT follow the exact same playbook white segregationists used against King to attack the civil rights movement.

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By the end of his life, King was describing the civil rights movement in revolutionary terms. Under his leadership, the Black freedom struggle was “exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society,” revealing “systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggesting that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” Because he understood our nation’s “triple evils” of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation as interconnected, his vision of racial justice was coextensive with economic justice; in his final book, King championed the idea of an economic bill of rights aimed at “the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

If we are serious about turning this dream into reality, we must first understand what equality and justice meant to him. At the very least, we must read King for ourselves, so that each January our celebrations of the man and all that he stood for are based not on a misleading image, but on reality.

Sam Hoadley-Brill

Sam Hoadley-Brill is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a research and writing fellow at the African American Policy Forum.

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