"It didn't cost the nation a penny to open lunch counters. It didn't cost the nation a penny to give us the right to vote," he said. "But it will cost the nation billions to feed and house all of its citizens. The country needs a radical redistribution of wealth."
King's aides defend leader's record
Some of King's closest aides are baffled at the argument that King opposed affirmative action policies. They say the public record is clear: King openly supported such policies.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the group he led, created a program called Operation Breadbasket that called for companies to hire a certain number of blacks. In King's book "Why We Can't Wait," he recounts his travels to India where he expressed approval for that government's attempts to remedy the historical discrimination of "the untouchables" through compensatory programs.
King also argued that just as the nation had given preferential treatment to soldiers returning from World War II through the GI Bill, it should do the same for blacks in the realms of jobs and education.
"A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro," King wrote in "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community."
Conservatives don't like to talk about that version of King, says those who knew the civil rights leader.
"This is just an attempt to hoodwink people about who Martin Luther King Jr. was," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, part of King's inner-circle at the SCLC.
"He would have never advocated that people should be judged by their color," Lowery says. "He never advocated that. What he advocated was that people should not be discriminated against because of their color. That's entirely different."
The notion that self-help and liberal politics can't co-exist is wrong as well, Lowery says. They've existed for years in the black church, the institution that spawned King.
"We always encouraged folks to help themselves," Lowery says of black pastors. "The more we help ourselves, the more we prove our worth. The church said the Lord helps those who help themselves. I've heard that all my life."
Clarence Jones, who was a speechwriter and attorney for King, says King's position on affirmative action would have evolved. He says he believes that King would support affirmative action policies that help poor people, not one particular race.
He was already headed that way with the "Poor People's Campaign," says Jones, author of "Behind the Dream," which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of King's dream speech.
King had already decided during the last year of his life to push for the congressional passage of an economic bill of rights for the poor, Jones says. The SCLC debated whether to include nonblacks in the bills of rights but King insisted that they do so.
"We came to the conclusion that the economic circumstances of poor people transcended the issue of color and race," Jones says.
Conservatives who insist that King's primary aim was to change people, not laws, don't understand King or American history, others say.
If King's primary aim was to change hearts not laws, the movement would not have had as many victories, says Clayborne Carson, who was chosen by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, to edit her husband's papers.
"People who gain privileges because of race or status don't readily give up those privileges and they don't see them as wrong," Carson says. "We know for a fact that the South would have never voted out slavery or Jim Crow."
Two visions of King
Carson says those who distort King's legacy aren't confined to conservatives. Some of King's biggest supporters subtract vital parts of King's message.