RONALD REAGAN AND THE REWRITING OF MARTIN LUTHER KING’S LEGACY
It’s become an MLK Day tradition for conservatives to point to King’s speeches on nonviolence and equality as a way to criticize modern black activists. Meanwhile, King’s popular image—transmitted in elementary school lessons for the holiday—has been drained of its radical social critiques and has instead become a generic symbol of equality and kindness to all.
In a 2005 paper for Presidential Studies Quarterly, Denise M. Bostdorff and Steven R. Goldzwig looked at how Ronald Reagan helped create this new image of King.
In the 1960s, King called for “a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged”—something akin to the benefits given to GIs after World War II. He also called for a guaranteed annual income, opposed the Vietnam War, and repeatedly advocated preferential treatment for African-Americans as a response to continuing and historical oppression. But by the time Reagan was elected in 1980, 12 years after King’s death, most politicians recalled his successful fight to end legally sanctioned segregation in the South and not his more radical critiques of American society as a whole.
For his first years in office, Reagan, like most on the American right, opposed a holiday for King. But when public sentiment shifted, he agreed to sign the holiday into law in 1983. The way he spoke about King’s achievements at the signing ceremony reflected a view of Civil Rights as a movement that long ago had accomplished its goals.