Published July 14, 2009
A billboard proclaiming that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican has stirred a religious and political hornets' nest in Houston, where a church leader is trying to draw black voters into the Republican Party.
The jumbo-sized roadside ad made its contentious claim for about a week -- until a local black activist charged that the sign unjustly politicized King's legacy and was hurting his community by telling a "blatant lie."
"Martin Luther King may have very well believed in some of the Christian principles of the Republican Party, but Dr. Martin Luther King was not a Republican or a Democrat," said Quanell X, who heads the New Black Panther Party in Houston.
"Dr. King was bigger than a political party -- he was a humanitarian, and so to attach him exclusively to any party is to devalue his humanitarian global status," he said. "We were insulted ... by the billboard because it was a blatant lie."
King held great sway over black voters and carefully courted both Republicans and Democrats. He never officially endorsed a party or candidate.
But the founder of RagingElephants.org, the black conservative group that sponsored the sign, told FOXNews.com that the sign was designed to get blacks to rethink their political affiliation -- about 95 percent of blacks voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections -- and that this is just the beginning. He said a radio campaign that focuses on "the destructive nature of liberalism" is forthcoming.
"We think it's imperative that [the GOP] try and attract more people from the communities of color to vote their values -- to vote conservative," said Claver Kamau-Imani, who heads the Corinthian Christian Empowerment Church, a small house church in Houston.
What's more, he said, the sign is accurate.
Kimau-Imani told FOXNews.com that King's niece, the Rev. Alveda King, has long argued that her uncle was a Republican, though he acknowledged there was no documentation or voting record to prove it.
Those claims enraged Quanell X, who held a press conference late last week to rally against the sign and ended up in a shouting match over the legacy of the murdered civil rights icon.
The billboard, which Kamau-Imani says cost $3,000 to display for a month, came down shortly after Friday's press conference -- about 20 days ahead of schedule, a move Kamau-Imani attributed to the "spineless" response of the billboard company, SignAd.
"The simple fact is that the leader of the Black Panther Party here in Houston called a news conference and they spooked," he said.
Representatives for SignAd did not return requests for comment.
Quanell X told FOXNews.com he was pleased that he had succeeded in getting the billboard removed. He added that King would never have embraced the present-day GOP, which he said had "racist elements."
"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not be with the party of Newt Gingrich, he would not be with the party of Sarah Palin, he would not be with the party of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage or Sean Hannity," he said.
Representatives for the King family did not return requests for comment.
What went little noticed in the fray was the subtext on the billboard, which said that the Raging Elephants are committed to "leading America's 2nd emancipation."
Kamau-Imani told FOXNews.com that black voters feel that "your blackness, your street cred is tied up with whether you are a Democrat or not" -- a notion he said amounted to a kind of mental slavery that keeps blacks from speaking freely.
The president of the Houston branch of the NAACP said that the civil rights group does not wade into partisan politics, but seemed pleased that the sign had come down.
"The community has prevailed," said Carol Galloway, president of the organization's Houston branch.
Despite losing some of his investment in the billboard, Kimau-Imani told FOXNews.com he was happy with the effect of the sign.
"The billboard was simply something to get a conversation started, to make people think about their political affiliations," he said. "It appears we have achieved our goal."