nbra_mlkshirt_web.jpgTALLAHASSEE (AP) — A black Republican group has put up billboards in Florida and South Carolina saying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican, a claim that black leaders say is ridiculous.

The National Black Republican Association has paid for billboards showing an image of the civil rights leader and the words “Martin Luther King Jr. was a REPUBLICAN.”

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, chuckled at the idea.

“These guys never give up, do they?'' Lowery said. “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.

Rice said her Sarasota-based group started in 2005 with five members, and now has 1,000 members in 48 states.

“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.”

Her assertion angered state Rep. Joe Gibbons of Hallandale Beach, a Democrat who chairs the Florida Legislative Black Caucus.

“Nobody knew who was leading the Ku Klux Klan, they had sheets over their heads. Was she at the cross burning meetings?” Gibbons said with a disgust that was just as strong when he talked about the billboards.
“To make a statement like that is ridiculous. To make a claim without presenting proof is bogus.”

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.

The National Black Republican Association was criticized two years ago for running radio ads in Ohio and
Maryland with a similar message. Rice said the group plans more radio ads in the areas where the billboards are up, as well as a mail campaign. It also sells 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.”

At a nearby gas station, Devoney Karvonen, 30, a white Republican, said she thought the billboard was offensive.

“I don't think it's right,’’ she said. “You're obviously lying about something and you shouldn't be.”

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 Kennedy, and the only time he openly talked about politics was when he criticized Republican Barry Goldwater during the 1964 presidential campaign.

“That was not the Martin I know and I don't think they can substantiate that by any shape, form or fashion. 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., which was 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 geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism,” King said in the book.