Civil rights leaders, Black Democrats and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele went ballistic when they heard a woman in a 60-second radio ad say "Dr. King was a Republican."
The ad, bankrolled by the National Black Republican Association, is running on several Baltimore radio stations. At first glance, the ad is a cheap political shot that stretches political lunacy far past the outer limit. But is it? The ad is not the first time that Republicans have claimed Martin Luther King Jr. as one of their own.
The debate over whether King has anything in common with the GOP has raged since the 1980s. Republicans grabbed at King's famed line in his "I Have a Dream" speech — in which he called on Americans to judge individuals by the content of their character and not the color of their skin — to prove that he'd oppose affirmative action.
Supporters of affirmative action loudly protest that this deliberately distorted the spirit and intent of King's words. They are both right.
During the fierce wars over affirmative action in the 1990s, King's words were shamelessly used to justify opposition to affirmative action. Yet there is enough paradox and ambivalence in the few stray remarks that King uttered on the issue to give ammunition to both liberals and conservatives. In several speeches and articles in the 1960s, King did not demand that the government and corporations create special programs or incentives exclusively for Blacks, but for the disadvantaged of all races.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, King realized that ending legal segregation wasn't enough. Integrating a motel or lunch counter did not provide jobs, improved housing and better schools for the Black poor.
King felt that the bigger problem for Blacks and Whites was the disappearance of thousands of industry jobs to automation. He sensed that jobs were an issue that could inflame Blacks and Whites. He claimed that Black and White workers suffered equally when jobs were lost.
But in those days, affirmative action was seen as a tool to prod employers not simply to hire and promote the disadvantaged of all races, as King insisted, but Blacks. If that happened, King almost certainly knew that this would leave many Whites out in the economic cold.
Starting with Reagan, Republican presidents have realized that they can wring maximum political mileage out of King's legacy. They have recast him in their image on civil rights and bent and twisted his position on morals issues to justify GOP positions in the values wars that they wage with Blacks, Democrats and liberals.
But that wouldn't be possible if some of King's pronouncements did not parallel the GOP's positions on crime, marriage, the family and personal responsibility. Republicans have carefully cobbled bits and pieces from King's speeches and writings during the 1950s and early 1960s to paint a King that is anti-big government, anti-welfare, anti-Black crime and an advocate of thrift, hard work and temperance.
This is not a complete misrepresentation of King. In those speeches and writings he took the moral high ground and lectured Blacks on the value of hard work, the importance of setting personal goals and striving to develop good character.
While King can never be considered a political conservative, the snippets of conservative thinking in his musings on the Black family, economic uplift and religious values blended easily with the social conservatism of many Blacks, and just as easily into the GOP's prescription for Black ills.
And that evidently is more than enough for Black Republicans to say he'd be a big player on the GOP team.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.BlackNews.com.