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Why Does Every U.S. Politician Try to Claim Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Dr. King’s legacy means different things to different people. The power of his message is borne by the extent to which every political and civil rights movement in America tries to claim him as one of their own. The man whose views were scorned, hated, ridiculed and abused by most during his lifetime is now one of the few people that disparate groups in America tend to agree with and incorporate into their rhetoric. Maybe that is the power of his legacy the fact that every group now finds a need to attach themselves in some way to it.

Consider the recent push by Republicans to identify Dr. King as a card-carrying member of the GOP. This is a recent development that has only caught on since President Obama was elected and the lack of diversity in the party was identified as a critical weakness. Billboards in Texas and Tennessee proclaimed Dr. King’s affiliation with the Republican Party.

Now, no one knows if Dr. King was a registered Republican. Politifact called the claim false, noting that in his autobiography he stated “I always voted the Democratic ticket.” They also pointed out that his son found the claim to be outrageous. But it is possible that in Alabama, he was forced to register as a Republican because Democrats did not allow black people to register to vote.

Republicans have been fighting back against the argument that they are not sensitive to race and diversity by reminding Americans that they are the party that “freed the slaves” and started and supported the major civil rights legislation in America. Like everyone else, they see Dr. King as the symbol of that effort and they want to claim his symbolic image and a part of his legacy as part of their own.

The Socialist Party still claims King as part of their movement. They argue that King believed capitalism was the root source of the evils of racism, war and poverty. King said “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

In one of their pamphlets, the Socialist Party of the USA suggests that King was being considered as a presidential candidate running on the Socialist Party ticket. The pamphlet is filled with King quotes, like “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.” That is the very definition of redistribution of wealth, a policy that is has the divide in the country growing each day.

Libertarians respect some of King’s message. They use it as an argument against race-based diversity programs such as affirmative action. Libertarians argue that Democratic Party's predilection to couch all policy is terms of demographics runs counter the King’s dream of a race-neutral society. Reason magazine opined, “In the minds of too many Americans, King is primarily a ‘black’ leader and the civil rights movement he has come to embody is principally the endowment of black Americans. But that view inappropriately qualifies the man and the movement. King wasn't narrowly interested in race; he was broadly committed to justice.”

Dr. King was one of the most controversial public figures in history. Conservatives opposed him for challenging “states’ rights," and liberals were concerned that he would provoke disorder. The government bugged his home, office and hotel rooms across the country and called him a communist sympathizer. Northern blacks and the Nation of Islam rejected his methods, and other civil rights leaders were jealous of his rapid rise to national prominence.

But today, Dr. King is the glue that holds it all together. Regardless of your ideology, civil liberty and economic freedom is the ultimate goal. And within that goal, you’ll find a hallowed space set aside for Dr. King.

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