Republican praise of Martin Luther King will sound even more hollow now

Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967 at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, California. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There’s a long list of Republicans who ought not part their lips this holiday weekend to praise Martin Luther King Jr., to quote from his most famous speech or suggest in any way that they know anything about content of character. 

That list includes the 138 Republicans in the U.S. House and the six Republicans in the U.S. Senate who voted to overturn the results of a free and fair election after a mob demanding that they overturn the election stormed the U.S. Capitol. The list also includes everybody who — at any point after the election was called for Joe Biden — suggested President Donald Trump’s defeat warranted investigation.

No tweets, no videos, no press releases. Not one word about how much King inspired you. Act like you’ve never heard of him or like you think of him with scorn.

In other words, do what you do when you’re craning for an affectionate pat on the head from Trump. Do what you do when you’re courting Trump’s “Lock Her Up” / “Build the Wall” / “Send Her Back” / “Lock Him Up” / “Fire Fauci” / “Stop the Steal” fanatics. Your posture toward Trump and his devotees reveals more of what you think about King and his work than a saccharine tweet about King’s greatness ever could.

Let us march on ballot boxes until race-baiters disappear from the political arena,” King said in 1965 at the end of a long march from Selma to Montgomery. “Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures, and the United States Congress, men who will not fear to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.”

American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

There was a massive march to the polls Nov. 3 in the election that Biden won. Never before had more than 140,000,000 Americans voted, and in this election, 159,633,396 did. Georgians marched again on Jan. 5 when they elected two Democrats — a Black man and a Jewish man — to represent them in the U.S. Senate. 

There was also a massive backlash: Trump claiming that he’d been robbed (specifically by election officials in majority Black jurisdictions), Republican lawmakers endorsing the lie, Republican-controlled legislatures proposing more limited access to absentee ballots, a mob of bloodthirsty, murderous pro-Trump extremists forcing their way into the Capitol aiming to make Congress do its bidding.

Did our Republican lawmakers overcome their fear of Trump, their fear of Trump’s fanatics?  Did they find the courage, the decency, to do justly? No. In various ways and at various times, they disrespected American voters, specifically those Americans who may never have been voters without the movement King led.

Retired Tulane University history professor Lawrence Powell told the Illuminator last week that just like the murderous response to Black people getting elected during Reconstruction, last week’s ransacking of the U.S. Capitol followed the “promiscuous assumption that Black electoral politics are by definition riddled by fraud and illegal chicanery.”

So let us not hear any “Let freedom ring” platitudes from those who cast suspicion on Black people exercising the franchise.

As ridiculously offensive as it would be for the Republicans who’ve been standing with Trump to suggest that they would have stood (and still do stand) with King, it’s no more ridiculous than Trump adviser Stephen Moore telling Wisconsinites upset with COVID-19 restrictions that “We need to be the Rosa Parks here and protest against these government injustices.”

Even more than Parks, King has become soft clay in the hands of White conservatives who continue trying to shape him into an anodyne speechmaker sent to forgive White people of racism, join hands with them and sing.

Those conservatives have not only tried to make King colorblind, they’ve tried to make him raceless, something other than a Black man who pledged a Black fraternity at a Black college, married a Black woman, pastored Black churches, led marches of mostly Black people and urged the Black audience listening to his very last speech to take their money out of white banks and put it in Black banks — and to reject their white insurance companies for Black ones.

None of that means white people and white institutions can’t support his cause. It means those who’ve been holding up an anti-Black President and pushing anti-Black policies don’t — and should stop pretending that they do.

King expressed disdain for “the white moderate” who, he said, called a “great stumbling block” to his cause.  What do we think he’d make of the white conservative who wrongly labels Black votes fraudulent in support of the biggest fraud the White House has ever seen?