Aside from the badly abused figures of Abraham Lincoln and George Orwell, the appropriation of Martin Luther King in the speeches of congresspeople contesting the election—even after the violent invasion of the Capitol—is notable. As is customary now in public proclamations, King day ceremonies, and moments of vapid public discourse, one thing can be counted on: the ritualistic (mis)invocation of the late Dr. King’s views on race, religion, and politics.
One thing can be counted on: the ritualistic (mis)invocation of the late Dr. King’s views on race, religion, and politics.
The fate of martyrs is to be made into saints; and the fate of saints is to be made into statues, mausoleum pieces, and irrelevant national holidays. Martin Luther King was a misunderstood martyr. He was misunderstood at the time by a majority of white Americans who expressed their dislike of him; J. Edgar Hoover was a far more popular national hero, in fact.
But the real distortions started much later. As his image was burnished and made suitable for King holiday consumption, the tough edges were whittled down. Over time, his status as a martyr and a saint made him useful for causes that he spent his entire public career inveighing against. The call of the moment is to restore that vision, so badly damaged and distorted in recent years, and give it substance again.
For example, in her very first speech on the House floor, newly elected Republican Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina made the classic rhetorical move of condemning everyone equally. Quoting King, she said: “The time is always right to do what his right.” She added, in her own words, “both sides have contributed to the violence, and it would be wrong to rush to judgment when both sides need to be held accountable.”
The sanctification of King’s legacy has rendered him a valuable tool of the rhetoric of false moral equivalences, of a civil religion without substance. Just as president Trump famously noted after the 2017 tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, there were “good people on both sides.” One side featured ordinary citizens opposed to racism; the other side (in that case) featured a fearfully grim group of torch-bearing young men with fascist proclivities.
The sanctification of King’s legacy has rendered him a valuable tool of the rhetoric of false moral equivalences, of a civil religion without substance.
Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks provides an equally repellent example. Before January 6, he had riled up the troops by telling them: “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” After the January 6 tragedy, in his self-defense in Congress, he said: “I quote the phrases of American patriot Martin Luther King, who acknowledged in 1958 that, ‘True peace is just not merely the absence of stress; it’s the presence of justice.’” The exact quote is “the absence of tension,” but close enough.
After the events of January 6, Brooks remained unrepentant in his insistence that this was a “fraudulent” and “stolen” election, meaning there could be no true peace until the justice of his cause was recognized. Brooks’ cause, of course, was to overturn the results of one of the most democratic (in terms of voter turn-out) elections in modern history, and to deny the clearly expressed will of the American people.
Former Vice President Mike Pence provided a good addition to the list. During the middle of the Trump administration, defending the building of the border wall, he said:
“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make the real promises of democracy.’...He inspired us to change through 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 our government.”
Martin Luther King’s son quickly offered up, by way of rebuttal, that his father was a bridge builder—not a wall builder—but Pence had made his point. A mummified King blessed the border wall.
As the vigorous protest movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) arose in the 2010s, in response to police violence against African Americans, white Americans expressed shock that BLM would dare to claim the King mantle. The movement, one commentator claimed, “encourages violence through irresponsible rhetoric. Dr. King would not participate in a Black Lives Matter protest.” Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin suggested that BLM was “the antithesis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message.” A white Southern Baptist Convention official, insisting that he would not give up on King’s dream—which amounted to the content of their character quote, and nothing else—suggested that contemporary movements were divisive and “inflammatory,” resulting in division rather than unity.
In fact, many of King’s speeches from that era, particularly in the last four years of his life, almost exactly mirror words taken from BLM protests.
Many of King’s speeches from that era, particularly in the last four years of his life, almost exactly mirror words taken from BLM protests.
The contemporary rise of a white nationalist alt-right—including those who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021, egged on by Trump and various of his minions, as well as by an entire ecosystem of disinformation and falsehoods that had been peddled to them for months and years previously—now have rejected the King legacy of a “symphony of brotherhood” altogether. They have unapologetically returned to the white supremacist playbook of King’s enemies. In a sense, those living in this particular present-day bubble of the white nationalist right actually may have a much more accurate interpretation of King than the various other distortions we are surveying here. It’s just that they fundamentally reject that vision.
The good news, however, is that the majority of Americans clearly are shocked and horrified by the recent events. That makes this a good time to refresh King’s vision; free it from the plaster sainthood where it has been entombed; and recapture the morally clarifying force of his vision of a government devoted to equality and justice, and not one that would simply repeat empty mantras of “unity.” The justice envisioned by King was substantive, not merely rhetorical.