MELBOURNE, Fla. -- It is a large legacy that looms over the past five decades, from the prophetic "I Have a Dream" speech delivered during the March on Washington to his last campaign taking a stand for underpaid black sanitation workers in Memphis, the city where he was slain.
But to a number of conservatives, forgotten in the shadow of the memorials and tributes during the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life's work is his firm embrace of Christian values and a desire to see a colorblind America live up to the creed of equality professed by the Founding Fathers.
"I am a conservative and very proud of him and his sacrifices," said Laura Houston, a 61-year-old black Republican. She also is a member of the tea party, which borrows heavily from King's playbook of demonstrations and civic activism. Houston grew up attending the all-black Monroe High School in Cocoa, Fla., and remembers the man who used the pulpit to remind America of its obligations to Godly justice.
"I do not think that people appreciate the contributions he made. When he started out, he separated from the other black (secular) groups like the NAACP and formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I respected him for that," said Houston, who was raised a Southern Baptist.
Houston's is not an uncommon opinion today in many conservative circles, even as communities across the country prepare Monday to commemorate what would have been King's 85th birthday in an era where abortion is a protected right and same-sex marriage is slowly becoming the law of the land.
The move to cast King in a more conservative light has grown increasingly vocal in recent years as conservatives point to the fundamental values of traditional families, self-help and patriotism shared with King as he preached a gospel of social justice for all Americans. Critics, however, see it as a slight of hand tactic that avoids King's calls to help the poor and shun war.
Faith in action
There have even been provocative billboards dotting the national landscape making undocumented claims that King was a registered Republican, an idea that stems from the Rev. Alveda King, King's niece and a fixture among pro-life conservatives. Regardless, many conservatives praise King's dream.
"I think he was one of the greatest Americans to live, someone on a level with George Washington or an Abraham Lincoln," said Dr. Dave Weldon, former U.S. Representative from Melbourne, Fla., after attending a recent tribute program for King at the Florida Institute of Technology.
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"The positive impact he's had on this nation is immeasurable. The attraction to conservatives is that he voiced a lot of things, such as how our nation should be colorblind, that and honestly, how he put his faith into action. Those are conservative values, Republican values," Weldon said.
It was President Ronald Reagan, the hero of the modern conservative movement, who actually signed the national King holiday into law in 1983 to honor the assassinated leader, despite his own well-known personal misgivings about the civil rights movement as a whole.
"Martin Luther King believed, as I and so many Americans do, that our country will never be completely free until all Americans enjoy the full benefits of freedom," Reagan said, using a 1986 radio address that called into question the use of programs like affirmative action to help blacks become upwardly mobile while at the same time praising King's dream of seeking equality for all.
Those who hold a traditional view of King as a radical who used non-violence and wrote about reforming America's treatment of the poor and marginalized, question the characterization made by conservatives. In the years leading up to his assassination, King had moved beyond his focus on civil rights and began openly challenging the sitting Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, over Vietnam, wealth redistribution and the struggles of the poor.
"He was beyond and above being a Democrat or a Republican," said Gordon Patterson, a professor with the Humanities Department at Florida Tech who has studied civil rights.
"Martin Luther King Jr.'s politics were a politics of morality, and that transcended any organization. He was fighting for justice ... if that was Democratic, good, if it was Republican, good," said Gordon, who participated in civil rights marches while an undergraduate student at Northwestern University.
To be sure, King, who was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, inspired others to protest or practice civil disobedience against laws they disagreed with, said Houston and others. This weekend, pro-life activists across the nation will take to the streets in prayer and protest in a similar fashion against the Roe vs. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court 41 years ago.
Houston said King would be shocked to find the traditional values he taught as a minister were de-emphasized in the civil rights movement in favor of a more secular world view.
"I think that had he lived, King would not be a part of the (liberal) Democratic movement that came out of the 1960s. I don't think he would support abortion or gay rights," as a Christian minister, said Houston, who turned from the Democratic Party not long after it began supporting Roe vs. Wade.
"No, I don't think King would be happy with what's happened in our society and what's happened to the black family."
Kendall Moore, a Rockledge, Fla., attorney who attended Morehouse College, King's Alma mater in Atlanta, points out that many blacks during King's era grew up in God-fearing Christian homes and what today could be characterized as an "evangelical upbringing."
"What you have to remember is that we, as African-Americans, have a wide-range of views like anyone else," said Moore, adding that King was no different when it came to formulating his own outlook. "Conceptually, as far as the word 'conservative' goes, it has a broad definition, one that has transcended over the years."
To Patterson, King's legacy remains large and his mission to unite and elevate Americans of all classes remains a lofty goal, regardless of political affiliation or outlook.
"The great American challenge is to decide whether we're a crowd or a community. What King said was that we are a family."