Justice  /  Debunk

Martin Luther King, Critical Race Theorist

Republicans may claim otherwise, but the civil rights hero was no color-blind conservative.

Three years ago, Donald Trump celebrated the final Martin Luther King Jr. Day of his presidency by publishing the “1776 Report,” a manifesto for “patriotic education” intended to counter the “toxic propaganda” of “critical race theory.” A few months earlier, Trump had warned that CRT was “a Marxist doctrine that rejects the vision of Martin Luther King Jr.”—worse, it was “child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”

Republicans in several states quickly began to treat it as such, and an anti-CRT moral panic swept the nation. Prominent Republicans predictably followed Trump’s lead: In 2021, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy declared, “Critical race theory goes against everything Martin Luther King Jr. taught us,” and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis invoked King when he introduced the Stop W.O.K.E. Act that reenforced his earlier prohibition of CRT in public schools, which compared the view that systemic racism exists in the United States to Holocaust denial.

It’s not just the far right—self-styled liberal pundits have repeated these talking points. In a recent appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Bill Maher argued that King believed people should “not see race at all, anywhere, for any reason,” then compared “the woke” to the Ku Klux Klan.

The logic behind these misinterpretations of King is easy to understand: Because King dreamed of a nation in which people would “be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he would, if he were still alive, denounce race-conscious policies like affirmative action. Because he was a champion of civil rights, proponents of a color-blind King infer that he would have rejected CRT’s central premise that the marquee legal victories of the civil rights era, like the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board, were insufficient in bringing about true racial equality in America.

There are, however, two major problems with this reasoning. The first is that it ignores an elementary distinction between means and ends: It is perfectly consistent to dream of a world in which racial differences no longer hold social weight while insisting, as King often did, that such a world cannot come into being without race-conscious reparative policies.

The second, more substantive problem with this interpretation of King is that it’s just not true. It is explicitly contradicted by many of King’s most acclaimed writings and speeches. It is possible that those who celebrate King as some kind of antidote to wokeness do not know this; maybe they think he sprang into existence in 1963, uttered a few sentences about his dreams at the March on Washington, and then disappeared from the political scene, having magically eliminated racism from America forever. But it’s equally possible that many of the politicians and pundits who venerate a reactionary doppelgänger of King are counting on us not to read his writings for ourselves.