Republicans, Keep Dr. King’s Name Out of Your Mouths
The GOP has weaponized the legendary civil rights leader’s messages of nonviolence against progressives for years. Enough.
MLK Day comes this year just as the nation prepares for a new (and better) president, and reckons with the violent threats of Trump and his white supremacist supporters to the transition of power. There are two quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a radical and transformational leader, that come to mind when thinking about the fight then and now for civil rights in a society that has remained stubborn to evolve:
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus” and, speaking of today’s GOP, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Incredibly, King’s messages of nonviolence and unity were invoked on the floor of Congress last week to defend the likes of white supremacist Donald Trump from his richly deserved second impeachment. “I’m asking my colleagues to remember the words of the legendary, the great leader in this country, Dr. Martin Luther King, who once said the time is always right to do what is right,” newly sworn-in Republican Congresswoman Nancy Mace said, in her first time speaking on the House floor. “We need to recognize, number one, that our words have consequences. That there is violence on both sides of the aisle. We’ve contributed to it. We need to take responsibility for our words and our actions.”
Yes, a Republican used the words of King to defend the likes of Trump while both-siding the fatal violence of Trump’s minions, egged on by numerous seditious Republicans following his lead and refusing to accept his loss, storming the Capitol. At first, I asked myself how in the fuck could such a false equivalence happen—and now, of all times? But while it feels shocking each time, Republicans misquoting and weaponizing King’s words and ideals to defend their problematic ways is nothing new.
For years, conservatives have romanticized a revisionist history of King as their model Black citizen—in spite of the fact that he was an outspoken activist who spoke against American wars, was labeled a communist, and supported more social services for the people. King has been reduced to a few quotes about nonviolence that these cynical Republicans use to chastise living Black leaders and organizers whom they despise.
In 1996, Republicans used quotes from King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech to try and rally voters behind a ballot initiative to end most affirmative action programs in California. They left out what King wrote in Why We Can’t Wait in 1964: “It is obvious if a man is entered at the starting line in a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat to catch up with his fellow runner.”
In 2010, Glenn Beck held a “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall, the same place where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, where the talking head told his mostly white audience of Obama-bashing followers that he wanted to “reclaim the civil rights movement” from the nation’s first Black president.
“He was against all policies based on race,” said Peter Schramm, a conservative historian, to CNN in 2013. “The basis of his attack on segregation was ‘judge us by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.’ That’s a profound moral argument.”
That’s not a profound moral argument, and it’s a distortion of King’s actual message that “the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
But even that pales compared to how the Trump administration has distorted King’s words to suit their agenda. “One of my favorite quotes from King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,’” Vice President Mike Pence said on the eve of MLK Day in 2019, while defending his administration’s xenophobic border wall. “You think of how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process, to become a more perfect union.”
“Across the country, we’ve seen examples of police protecting protesters, and protesters embracing police, and it’s been beautiful to watch,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said last summer, amid the George Floyd protests. “And I just want to leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that, ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.’”
But here was King in 1967, speaking words whose truth still registers today, about how, “It may well be that shouts of Black Power and riots in Watts and the Harlems and the other areas are the consequences of the white backlash rather than the cause of them. What it is necessary to see is that there has never been a single solid monistic determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the whole question of Civil Rights and on the whole question of racial equality. This is something that truth impels all men of good will to admit.”
That’s in ”The Other America” speech in which King condemns riots as “socially destructive and self-defeating” but adds that “it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots… without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
The conservatives twisting King’s words today to blast Black activists protesting the police brutality and racism that King was assassinated for standing up against should listen to his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, where he said, “I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
And then, “I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.”
Such a “build up” starts with self-centered Republicans keeping Dr. King’s words, messages, and ideals out of their hypocritical mouths and refraining from another tone-deaf social media post, press release, statement, or video about him on Monday—just stop, please.
“The violent are trying to take the kingdom by force,” newly elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock said at his Ebenezer Baptist Church last Sunday, at the pulpit where Dr. King once preached.
“The question this day is, will you stand on the side of righteousness, justice and truth, or will you give in to the ugly demons of our nature?”
This MLK Day, Republicans could start putting some respect on Dr. King’s name by respecting his ideas. Failing that, they should keep his name out of their mouths.