TALLAHASSEE — A black Republican group has put up billboards around Florida — including Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — and in South Carolina saying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican.
Black leaders say the claim is ridiculous.
The National Black Republican Association's billboards show the civil rights leader and the words "Martin Luther King Jr. was REPUBLICAN."
Told of the billboards, the Rev. Joseph Lowery let out a soft chuckle that grew stronger as he began to think more about the idea.
"These guys never give up, do they?" said Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King. "Lord have mercy."
Seven billboards have gone up in six Florida counties and another in Orangeburg, S.C., said Frances Rice, the group's chairwoman. Part of the group's mission is to highlight what she said is the Democratic Party's racist past.
"I knew the King family well. We were all Republicans," said Rice, 64. "There was no way Dr. King would have wanted to be in the party of the Ku Klux Klan."
The King Center in Atlanta says there is no proof that King was ever a Republican. Rice stands by her claim. She said she was asked by the King Center to take down the billboards, but she refused. "I said, 'If you want us to stop, sue us.' But they don't want to come into court because they know they'll have to tell the truth," Rice said.
Rice said the group plans more radio ads in the areas where the billboards are as well as a mail campaign, and T-shirts and buttons with the message.
In Tampa, Clarissa Robinson, sat in her car directly under the billboard and looked up at it.
"Why'd they put that up there?" said Robinson, 22, who is black and a Democrat. "So nobody (will) vote for (Democrat Barack) Obama. They're trying to make us vote for the other guy."
Lowery, who knew King well, said there is no reason why anyone would think King was a Republican. He said King most certainly voted for President John Kennedy, and the only time he openly talked about politics was when he criticized Republican Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign.
"It's purely propaganda and poppycock," Lowery said. "Even if he was, he would have nothing to do with what the Republican Party stands for today. Do they think Martin would support George W. Bush and the war in Iraq?"
In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr., published after his death from his written material and records, King called the Republican national convention that nominated Goldwater a "frenzied wedding … of the KKK and the radical right."
The Republican Party of Florida refused to discuss the billboards.