This seems to happen every election season. In an effort to attract the black vote, conservatives try to convince African American voters that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican.
Here’s the truth. Martin Luther King, Senior, known to the family as Daddy King, was a Republican. But, you must remember that he was born in 1899. Following the Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War, almost all blacks were Republican. After all, the GOP was the Party of Emancipation. Democrats were the opposite: Southern, Conservative, and for states’ rights.
Black partisanship largely resided with the GOP all the way into the Great Depression. However, thanks to the back-room leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt, the Democratic Party slowly started appealing to the urban black vote. Democrat Franklin Roosevelt did not appeal directly to blacks, per se, but African Americans recognized that if the New Deal succeeded they would benefit.
After World War II, Democrat Harry Truman desegregated the military and opened a path to middle-class prosperity via services in the Armed Forces.
Regarding civil rights, the most salient issue to Black America in the twentieth century, President Eisenhower engaged in the minimum, although even then, it was more than Ike wanted to do. In the school desegregation crisis at Little Rock’s Central High in 1957, Eisenhower sent the Army to enforce a federal court order, although as an advocate for states’ rights, he hated doing so. He later termed his appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court the biggest mistake of his presidency. Warren, of course, wrote the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
At this point, Martin Luther King, Jr. focused on opening the eyes of politicians of both parties to the suffering Southern blacks faced from anti-democratic state legislatures and despotic demagogues across the South. MLK found the Kennedy administration too consumed by political calculations to be a trustworthy ally, even though King believed that JFK wanted to do the right thing.
What changed everything was LBK. President Johnson, a Democrat, signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law. While these two laws were not the immediate salvation that many hoped, President Johnson staked his 1964 re-election on expanding opportunity and basic notions of fairness to all Americans. LBJ did this knowing full well that the racist element of the Southern Democratic Party would stalk out of his party.
For his part, King did not endorse politicians of either party. For Republicans today to try to steer the black vote to the GOP is a cheap trick.
Unfortunately, Republicans like John Sununu think so little of blacks that they honestly believe that black voters cast their ballots solely based on race, and not ideas. It is this stereotyping by race that MLK fought.