Conservative activist and Turning Point USA cofounder Charlie Kirk has a lot of opinions on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2015, Kirk called him a “hero.”
In 2022, MLK was a “civil rights icon.”
In December 2023, speaking before a group of students and teachers at America Fest, a political convention organized by Turning Point USA, Kirk struck a different tone.
“MLK was awful,” Kirk said. “He’s not a good person. He said one good thing he actually didn’t believe.”
For decades, conservatives have pointed to King and his idea that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” as a model for equality.
“For a while, Dr. King’s stock was very much on the rise in conservative circles and the Republican Party,” says John Wood Jr., a Republican activist. “It’s been understood on the right that even though Dr. King wasn’t really one of us politically, he was still a ‘good liberal.’”
For Kirk, the shift on King wasn’t an offhand remark, but a glimpse into his broader strategy to discredit the civil rights leader and the landmark legislation most associated with King: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I have a very, very radical view on this, but I can defend it, and I’ve thought about it,” Kirk said at America Fest. “We made a huge mistake when we passed the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.”
Turning Point USA, founded in 2012 by an 18-year-old Kirk to organize conservative students on college campuses, has grown into an ideological force in right-wing politics. America Fest, which took place at a convention center in downtown Phoenix, featured speeches by right-wing heavyweights Donald Trump Jr., Tucker Carlson, and US representative Matt Gaetz of Florida. Nearly 20,000 people attended the four-day event, according to Kirk.
Closely aligned with Donald Trump, the group has been seen as a way to replace the modern Republican establishment with younger people more aligned with the 45th US president and reactionary politics.
Kirk argues that the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, ushered in a “permanent DEI-type bureaucracy,” referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion. He illustrated how the law has gone wrong when responding to a question from a student who said they became the subject of a Title IX investigation after posting an Instagram story mocking transgender people. Title IX, which was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, bans schools that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex. King was assassinated four years prior, in 1968.
“The courts have been really weak on this,” Kirk told the America Fest crowd. “Federal courts just yield to the Civil Rights Act as if it’s the actual American Constitution.” The law is ultimately a way to “re-found the county” and “a way to get rid of the First Amendment,” according to Kirk.
Kirk’s attempt to discredit civil rights law is an example of how “the fringe moves to the center at the speed of light” in right-wing politics, says public policy scholar Jonathan Rauch.