I have gotten to the point where I almost dread Martin Luther King Jr. Day because it heralds the annual misuse of the civil rights giant’s legacy by conservatives. Conservatives have repeatedly chosen to ignore King’s actual legacy. Instead, they twist selective King quotes almost out of recognition to criticize modern civil rights movements such as Black Lives Matter. But this year? This year takes the cake.
I give you Vice President Mike Pence:
“I want to set the table for us resolving this issue [of the shutdown] in a way that achieves [the president’s] objectives to secure the border, end the humanitarian security crisis, end the government shutdown, but also to bring together the Democrats’ priorities to accomplish that. That’s what the American people expect us to do.
“And honestly you know the hearts and minds of the American people today are thinking a lot about it being the weekend where we remember the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But one of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.’ You think of how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process to become a more perfect union.
“That’s exactly what President Trump is calling on the Congress to do. Come to the table in a spirit of good faith. We’ll secure our border, we’ll reopen the government and we’ll move our nation forward as the president said yesterday to even a broader discussion about immigration reform in the months ahead.”
Pence claims, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, that King would want the Democrats to sign off on Trump’s wall. Why? Because democracy. No really, that’s all the justification that is given.
King’s son isn’t having it:
“The vice president attempted to compare the president to Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a bridge builder, not a wall builder.”
Pence’s use of King’s quote is so absurd that it it almost funny—or at least, it would be funny if Pence wasn’t so serious about it, or if he wasn’t the vice president. Look, context matters. You can’t just isolate one line from the middle of a speech and apply it to a current situation willy nilly. It does not work like that.
The line Pence quoted comes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Here’s the context:
In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check — a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds”. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundation of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
The “promises of democracy,” in King’s speech, referred to “a promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” King says that America “defaulted” on this promise “insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” That is the context in which King says: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” It has literally nothing to do with Pence’s statement that Democrats need to “come to the table” to work out a deal with Trump that involves approving his wall.
You can’t take a quote that is a specific call for racial justice and make it about something else entirely. Well, you can. Clearly. But you shouldn’t. Doing so is absurd—especially when your administration is the one pushing back on current calls for racial justice a la policing and criminal justice reform.
I’d like to be able to look forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day as simply a time for remembering where we’ve come from and a call to continue a legacy and a movement. Instead, this week of January has become a time for contending with white people who seem to go out of their ways to make a mockery of that same legacy without any attempt at understanding who King was or what he actually said or stood for.
Perhaps conservatives need to be banned form quoting Martin Luther King Jr. until they take a course and pass a test on the man, his ideas, and the movement he inspired. (Obviously, that’s not actually an option. I just find the idea oddly appealing right now.)
I have a Patreon! Please support my writing!