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Politics & Policy

Would Martin Luther King Jr. Really Have Hated Obamacare?

Martin Luther King Jr. leaving Harlem Hospital with his wife, Coretta, on Oct. 3, 1958, in New York

Photograph by Bettmann/Corbis

Martin Luther King Jr. leaving Harlem Hospital with his wife, Coretta, on Oct. 3, 1958, in New York

Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That afternoon, while President Obama and other luminaries gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the occasion, Jim DeMint, the president of the Heritage Foundation and a former Republican senator from South Carolina, caused a minor ruckus with this tweet about King and the Affordable Care Act:

The connection isn’t quite as random as it may seem. DeMint was, at the time, in the middle of a national series of town hall meetings designed to whip up enthusiasm to “defund Obamacare”—that is, convince Republicans to pass a budget that funds everything except the health-care law, as a way to weaken and ultimately kill it. DeMint was asked the question during a taping of Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox News.

Still: pretty random! Implicit in the tweet is the suggestion that King would not have supported Obamacare. Yesterday, I had a chance to talk with DeMint and asked him to elaborate. Here’s what he told me:

Since you tweeted about it, do you think King would have supported Obamacare?

DeMint: No one can speak for him, and it’s really not fair to project.

It’s an intriguing question!

DeMint: I think if he was talking about freedom—and I believe that he believed in free markets—I think he would have resisted this huge growth in dependency on government, and what the welfare state has done to destroy the family. Because he still had strong spiritual and moral overtones. You talk about character.

I know a lot of people would be offended if I tried to give an opinion for him, and I’m really not doing that. But from what I see of his speeches is he was looking for freedom to have equal opportunity for everyone to go out on a playing field and see what they could do. I just don’t think he would buy into this dependency state that the left is pushing.

Meaning Obamacare?

DeMint: Right.

* * *

Interesting exchange. Not being familiar myself with King’s views on health insurance, I was content simply to blog it. But my eagle-eyed editor, Aaron Rutkoff, passed along this quote from a 1966 speech King gave to the Medical Committee for Human Rights that suggests he might have been warmer to Obama’s plan than DeMint believes: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Green is senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.

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