By Karen Stokes
Political parties consistently seek endorsements from community leaders, and they often attempt to associate themselves with historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the nation commemorates Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday on Monday, January 15, there is always a new debate on what political party he backed.
Determining the political party affiliation of King, whether he was a Republican or Democratic doesn’t have a straightforward answer. To find the answer requires examining his quotes, speeches, and insights from scholars.
“I know of no one who has verified MLK’s party registration,” says Clayborne Carson, editor of King’s autobiography and Professor of History and Founding Director of The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. “He may have been registered as a Republican and voted Democratic in the national elections.”
“If he did so, Carson adds, he would have been doing what many Black Southerners did at the time: in Georgia and Alabama, where King lived, the Democratic party was “staunchly segregationist” and few African Americans would have registered as Democrats, even as the party was changing when it came to federal politics. In the South, of the two, the Republican Party “was the least hostile” to them.”
To understand the history of voting for African Americans, initially, the Republican Party attracted Black voters by supporting the end of slavery. However, by the mid-20th century, the parties shifted focus, African-Americans, moving North, played a key role in electing Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Democratic Party during the Great Depression.
According to King biographer David J. Garrow, King was fond of some Republican politicians, such as Richard Nixon, although it is almost certain that King voted for Democrats John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
In fact, King himself said he voted for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson for President in 1964.
President Johnson, who took office after Kennedy’s death in 1963, signed the Civil Rights Act in the summer of 1964.
Angry over the Civil Rights Act, many southern Democrats left the party. When the 1964 election came around, Arizona Republican Senator Barry Goldwater became the party’s presidential nominee. He lost the election, but convinced even more southern Democrats to switch parties, and ended up carrying only Deep South states.
Among the few times King ventured into open partisanship was to denounce Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who, as a senator, had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King said in an interview, “I had no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that did not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.”
“I voted for President Johnson and saw great hope there, and I’m very sorry and very sad about the course of action that has followed,” he said in a March 26, 1968, press conference for his Poor People’s Campaign.
By 1968, the Vietnam War had escalated, and King, who was firmly anti-war, announced he would not support LBJ for president again.
That year, Richard Nixon ran for and won the presidency under a “Southern Strategy” platform focused on maintaining law and order and states rights.
In American politics, the Southern strategy was a Republican Party electoral strategy to increase political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans.
In the 2020 Presidential election, about 91% of African-Americans voted Democrat, according to Politico.
Finally, to enhance the ambiguity of King’s political stance, he said in an interview in 1958 cited by Britannica, “I don’t think the Republican Party is a party full of the almighty God, nor is the Democratic Party. They both have weaknesses. And I’m not inextricably bound to either party.”