In their fight against the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision, leading conservatives have been turning to an unlikely source for inspiration: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (PDF), the collection of notes that King smuggled out of his jail cell during his eight-day detention for protesting the Jim Crow laws that sanctioned discrimination across the South.
The letter is one of the most iconic documents from of the Civil Rights era and includes King’s observations on the injustice of segregation and the daily humiliations that black men and women were suffering in their public and private lives.
Fast forward 50-plus years to Sunday morning when pastor-turned-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee referenced King as he decried the same-sex marriage ruling handed down last week as “judicial tyranny.” Huckabee also predicted that Christians across the country would “go the way of Martin Luther King,” and disobey the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriages must be legal in all 50 states.
“In his brilliant essay, the letters from a Birmingham jail, [King] reminded us, based on what St. Augustine said, that an unjust law is no law at all,” Huckabee during an interview on ABC’s This Week. “And I do think that we’re going to see a lot of pastors who will have to make this tough decision.”
Days earlier, the National Organization for Marriage, which has long opposed marriage equality, cited the same clause in a blistering take down of the Court’s ruling, comparing it to the 1857 Dred Scott decision that declared slavery constitutional.
As the marriage question has wound its way through the courts, conservatives from Franklin Graham to Tom DeLay and Dr. James Dobson (PDF) used the same portion of King’s letter to make the case that the Court’s decision to expand the right to marry would be unjust and immoral.
And when a group of Alabama pastors gave Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore an award this year to recognize his efforts to stop same-sex marriage, they called it the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail Award.”
But King experts say the basic premise of equating King’s fight against segregation with moral objections to same-sex marriage doesn’t ring true to King’s broader message of inclusion, tolerance and the rights of minorities to live by the laws of the majority.
“King never said a law is immoral if it doesn’t line up with the Bible. He would never have said anything like that. That’s not the way he thought,” said Doug Shipman, the founding director of the National Center for Civil Rights and Human Rights. “If you look at the letter, morality is bringing people together, not separating them from each other. So it seems odd that King would draw an exclusive line someplace.”
More broadly, it also seems odd that some cultural and religious conservatives are increasingly appropriating not just the language of the Civil Rights movement, but are also identifying themselves as an oppressed minority in a country that remains mostly white and mostly Christian.
On Sunday, Roy Moore warned Alabama churchgoers that they should prepare for their persecution. “Welcome to the new world,” he said.
At a protest to keep the Confederate flag flying on the statehouse grounds in Alabama over the weekend, a woman carried a sign that read “Southern Lives Matter,” which spawned the Twitter meme #SouthernLivesMatter. It was exactly as ugly a cocktail as you’d expect from a combination of race, Twitter, and a discussion of the merits and shortcomings of the Confederacy.
At the same rally, a Confederate flag supporter told the AP, “Right now, this past week with everything that is going on, I feel very much like the Jews must have felt in the very beginning of the Nazi Germany takeover. I mean I do feel that way, like there is a concerted effort to wipe people like me out, to wipe out my heritage and to erase the truths of history.”
Those truths of history make it impossible to draw a straight line from American slavery to Nazi Germany to the Jim Crowe South to today’s conservatives, who have seen social change sweep across the country in the last week and felt powerless to stop it.
Historically accurate or not, that lack of power, that sense of being a victim to current events, has become a key element of the new populism on the right that candidates like Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Scott Walker are trying to harness.
That explains Huckabee’s and other conservatives’ decision to graft the fight against gay marriage onto MLK’s fight for Civil Rights. It also makes Ted Cruz’s reaction to the marriage decision (telling an Iowa crowd that “the last 24 hours at the United States Supreme Court were among the darkest hours of our nation” and hitting the “elites” on the Court), make perfect sense. And it explains why Scott Walker would suggest a constitutional amendment on same-sex marriage that would be ratified by the states through a vote of the people.
By telling conservatives that their fight is as difficult and just and noble as those against slavery, segregation, and Nazism, the GOPers are not only endorsing conservatives’ fight, they are also casting themselves as the next Lincoln, the next FDR, or the next MLK that history will require to overcome tyranny.
When Huckabee quoted from King’s letter on Sunday, it wasn’t the first time. At the March for Marriage in front of the U.S. Capitol in 2014, he read lengthy passages of King’s words from a white iPhone to the crowd that had gathered to protest same-sex marriage.
“I wish I had penned those words,” Huckabee said. “But they were penned by someone who understood freedom, and understood that there was a time to stand up against law when it has become unjust. Those are the words that were penned in 1954 by Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from the Birmingham Jail.”
Among other omissions and inaccuracies, Huckabee botched the date King wrote the letter. It was in 1963.