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Posted at 12:45 PM ET, 12/23/2007

Four Pinocchios for Romney on MLK

By Michael Dobbs

Father and son, 1965, Harvey Croze/Cranbrook Archives.

"They [George Romney and Martin Luther King] were hand in hand...They led the march. We all swung our hands, and they held their hands up above everybody else's."

Quote distributed by the Mitt Romney campaign from Shirley Basore, 72, describing a June 1963 civil rights march through Grosse Pointe, MI.

After news reports challenged Mitt Romney's repeated accounts of his father marching with Martin Luther King, his campaign put a reporter from Politico in touch with eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the former Michigan governor "hand in hand" with the civil rights leader. But their memories are almost certainly flawed as contemporaneous news reports show that King was addressing a meeting in New Jersey at the time the eyewitnesses supposedly saw him in Grosse Pointe, MI.

The Facts

There is no dispute that George Romney supported the Civil Rights movement while governor of Michigan. When King came to Detroit in June 1963 for a civil rights march, Romney issued a proclamation supporting the event. According to accounts in the Detroit Free Press and The New York Times, he sent two representatives to the march on his behalf, which took place on Sunday, June 23. He told the Free Press that he avoided public appearances on the Sabbath because of his Mormon religion.


Romney did show up at a smaller march the following Saturday in the exclusive Grosse Pointe suburb of Michigan to protest housing discrimination. But contemporaneous news reports show that King had left the Michigan area by then, and was traveling in the Northeast. On Friday, June 28, he was in Suffolk, VA, according to an Associated Press report published in the Washington Post. On Saturday, June 29, he addressed an AFL-CIO meeting at Rutgers University in New Jersey, according to the Chicago Tribune. (Cited by the Boston Phoenix here.) He spent the following day in Brooklyn, arriving by car in Harlem on Sunday evening, according to the New York Times.

I called up one of the eyewitnesses cited by Politico and the Romney campaign, Ashby Robertson, a data collector now living in Massachusetts. Robertson told me that he called the Romney campaign last week because he had vivid memories of the Grosse Pointe march and was upset by media reports challenging the Mitt Romney version.

"I was fifteen feet away from them [Romney and MLK]," said Robertson, 64, who attended Grosse Pointe high school. "You don't forget that kind of thing."

When I told Robertson that news reports placed Martin Luther King in New Jersey at the time, he replied: "Well, it was somebody who certainly looked like him."

The Romney campaign did not respond Sunday to requests for comment.

The Pinocchio Test

Memory can play tricks on people after 45 years. In this case, the documentary evidence of contemporaneous newspaper reports carries much greater weight than the recollections of elderly "eyewitnesses." Mitt Romney now says he was speaking "figuratively" when he said he "saw" his father march with Martin Luther King. It now seems that George Romney only "marched" with King in the figurative sense. The burden of historical proof to demonstrate otherwise now clearly rests with the Romney campaign.

I was prepared to give the Romney camp the benefit of the doubt at first on the question of whether the governor marched with MLK, but I am revising my Pinocchio count upwards, based on the new information.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | December 23, 2007; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  4 Pinocchios, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, History  
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Next: The Fibs of 2007

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