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Conservatives claim Martin Luther King as their own

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Over at Alternet, Devona Walker has an interesting piece about how the rally that Glenn Beck is staging at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in August to unveil his “100 year plan” for America is only the latest attempt by conservatives to claim King as one of their own. For example:

In 2006, the ultraconservative think-tank Heritage Foundation also took to spinning King’s legacy. In an essay titled “Martin Luther King’s Conservative Legacy,” it directed conservatives to lay claim to King.

“King was no stalwart conservative, yet his core beliefs, such as the power and necessity of faith-based association and self-government based on absolute truth and moral law, are profoundly conservative,” wrote Carolyn Garris. “Modern liberalism rejects these ideas, while conservatives place them at the center of their philosophy. Despite decades of its appropriation by liberals, King’s message was fundamentally conservative.”

[…]

Conservatives cherry-pick and exploit particular phrases, or quotes, while entirely ignoring the totality of what King stood for, what he fought against and why he died.

One snippet, in particular, seems to routinely find its way into conservative talking points. It’s taken from a 1963 address in which King said we should be judged by “the content of our character.” That simple phrase was re-branded and re-packaged into a rallying cry against affirmative action.

In 1994, right-wing media critic David Horowitz said on “Crossfire”: “Martin Luther King, in my view, was a conservative because he stood up for, you know, belief in the content of your character–the value that conservatives defend today.”

In 1991, Charles Krauthammer pitted King against diversity. Progressives, he wrote, “have traded King’s dream for something called diversity….It is the opponents of race-conscious public policy who today speak in the name of values that King championed.”

Then, in 1996, when Gov. Mike Foster abolished affirmative action, he presented the act as somehow being a fulfillment of King’s dream. In fact, one of the original astroturf groups waging an ongoing battle to repeal affirmative action cynically goes by the name American Civil Rights Institute.

Another effort to distort Martin Luther King is being undertaken with the construction of a corporate-funded memorial to the Civil Rights leader on the National Mall in Washington, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2011. While these efforts to co-opt King are infuriating, I still doubt that in the end they will be successful. One doesn’t need to read very deeply into his biography or writings to discover how radical he truly was. And unless there is some Orwellian rewriting of history, that is something that will never change.