Ben Carson Spent MLK Day Defending the GOP as the Party of Civil Rights

The black 2016 Republican hopeful versus liberals.

Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition convention on January 18, 2015 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images

Dr. Ben Carson spent part of his weekend at the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition meeting in Myrtle Beach, where activist "Wild Bill Finley" announced that "the Tea Party is taking Martin Luther King away from the liberal left." But by Monday morning, Carson was in Washington, called on to speak to TV audiences about the state of race in America. In a morning C-SPAN interview, he told one caller it was "stupid" to suggest that it would be hard to elect a black president after Barack Obama: "Isn't he half white?"

At 7 p.m., Carson was in the studios of Washington's NewsChannel 8 for a televised "town hall" on race in America, where he was seated right next to Benjamin Crump, attorney for the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. Over 90 occasionally rambling minutes (a moderator insisted on making a strange number of jokes about the audience members drinking coffee), Carson found himself the sole defender of the police, who were not entirely responsible for the past year's conflicts with the black community.

"We have to talk to both the police and we have to talk to the community," said Carson. "Both of them have to accept some degree of humility. The community has to admit that not everyone in that community is an angel."

Crump was more direct. He quibbled with the moderator's assertion that Brown had not put his hands up before Officer Darren Wilson shot him—"the truth will come out on that"—and he argued repeatedly that grand juries needed to stop getting cases like the ones he'd handled. "Somebody’s got to speak up for the police," argued Carson, turning questions back to the idea that people of all races simply needed to communicate with each other.

Ben Carson (left) appears on Washington's NewsChannel 8 on Jan. 19, 2015.

Ben Carson (left) appears on Washington's NewsChannel 8 on Jan. 19, 2015.

Screenshot: NewsChannel 8

Carson generally stayed away from partisan politics, until a questioner asked him a direct question. What would Martin Luther King think of the modern Republican Party? What would he advise them?

"I suspect his biggest criticisms would be that they have not really reached out very much," said Carson. "I think probably his second criticism of the Republican Party [would be] that they don’t talk about what they’ve done. They don’t talk about the fact that the Republican Party was established as the abolition party. They don't talk about the fact that the Republican Party was the one that advocated for freed men to have guns, because the KKK was coming, trying to mow them down, and they were trying to keep them from having guns. They don't talk about one of the things you just mentioned, which is that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act was pushed through by Republicans against great Democratic opposition. They don't talk about the fact that Frederick Douglass was a Republican, that Booker T. Washington was a Republican, that George Washington Carver was a Republican, Martin Luther King, Sr. was a Republican, Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. I would say, he'd probably say why don't you talk about this stuff? Talk about what you're doing and be more proactive in reaching out."

All of that was familiar to progressives, who spend part of every MLK remembrance rebutting the idea that the modern Republican Party was the real heir to the Civil Rights movement. Plenty of people, including data journalist Harry Enten, have pointed out that the Democratic votes against the 1964 Civil Rights Act were cast by people soon replaced by Republicans, and that while most southern Democrats voted against the act, every single southern Republican did. (Democrats from outside the old Confederacy were more likely to back the law than Republicans from those same states.) And Carson's audience wasn't as hostile as the one Rand Paul found when he made these same arguments in 2013.