DETROIT (MCT) — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Thursday he was speaking figuratively when he said he had seen his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, march in civil rights demonstrations with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But he indicated that he still believes his father, widely acknowledged as an advocate for an end to discrimination against African Americans, marched with King, even though witness accounts and reports in Detroit Free Press archives appear to contradict that claim.

Romney addressed the issue while campaigning in Iowa after news reports challenged his assertion in a speech Dec. 6 and subsequent interviews that he had seen his father march with King.

Asked about the reports, Romney said: "My own eyes? You know, I speak in the sense of I saw my dad become president of American Motors. I wasn't actually there when he became president of American Motors, but I saw him in the figurative sense of he marched with Martin Luther King.

"My brother also remembers him marching with Martin Luther King, and so in that sense I saw him march with Martin Luther King."

The remarks were reported on a CBS News campaign Web site.

Later Romney said, "I can't even give you the time frame. I just remember that we talked about it."

He added, "You know, I'm an English literature major as well. When we say, 'I saw the Patriots win the World Series,' it doesn't necessarily mean you were there — excuse me, the Super Bowl. I saw my dad become president of American Motors. Did that mean you were there for the ceremony? No, it's a figure of speech."

Arthur Johnson, a longtime Detroit civil rights activist and former Detroit Branch National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president, said Thursday he clearly recalls marching with George Romney in a fair housing demonstration in Grosse Pointe in 1963, Romney's first year as governor.

But King, who led a major civil rights march in Detroit days earlier, did not attend, Johnson said.

Johnson said Romney, who died in 1995, was a stalwart on civil rights issues, but he cannot remember that Romney and King ever marched together. Richard Milliman, who was Romney's press secretary in 1962-64, also said he has no recollection of Romney's marching with King.

Romney campaign officials cited histories of the era, including a book by Washington Post columnist David Broder and Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess, which they said make "a pretty convincing case" the two men were together at a civil rights march in 1963.

Hess said Thursday he cannot recall the source of a reference in his book "The Republican Establishment: The Present and Future of the GOP," to Romney's having marched with King. It may have been newspaper clippings or Romney himself, Hess said.

Broder also said Thursday — according to an article on the Washington Post Web site — he does not recall the original source of the information about King and Romney.

Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Hess and Johnson both said they don't think the question has any real salience to either George Romney's legacy or Mitt Romney's candidacy.

George Romney was "clear, unequivocal on civil rights. He was a real leader," Johnson said. "There may have been a meeting" between George Romney and King. "I don't recall it. But I'm not prepared to say that" Mitt Romney "made a false claim."

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Free Press archives showed two civil rights marches took place in the same week in late June 1963. In the first, King led a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 down Woodward Avenue. The event was on a Sunday and the Free Press quoted Romney as praising those in attendance. But he said he did not attend because his Mormon faith discourages public appearances on the Sabbath.

Days later, Romney walked at the head of a march in Grosse Pointe with civil rights leaders who raised concerns about housing bias in the Pointes. But the Free Press report made no mention of King. Johnson, who was pictured with Romney in a Free Press photo from the event, said King was not there.