The family of Martin Luther King Jr. was among those who pushed back Monday amid the annual sanitization of the civil rights leader’s message, as the nation marked what would have been King’s 90th birthday—with Vice President Mike Pence drawing particular rebuke for attempting to co-opt his legacy.
Martin Luther King III, King’s son, denounced Pence for invoking King’s words in an interview on CBS the previous day. Calling it his favorite line by the civil rights leader, Pence quoted King by saying, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” and argued that is what Donald Trump is doing by trying to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
I’m not sure which I believe less: That Donald Trump is acting exactly like Martin Luther King in demanding a border wall, or that Mike Pence has a favorite MLK quote (which he has to read verbatim while quoting).
— Shannon Watts (@shannonrwatts) January 20, 2019
The original quotation was from King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he called for racial equality and for the same education and job opportunities to be afforded to black Americans as were given to their white counterparts.
King’s son noted that his father had been “a bridge builder, not a wall builder,” while others condemned Pence’s use of the phrase to push Trump’s xenophobic, anti-immigration proposal as “grotesque” and “wicked”—especially since the vice president has gone out of his way to make clear the administration’s hostility toward the kinds of non-violent demonstrations for racial justice that King promoted.
If MLKJr was alive today, Trump would say he wasn’t born here and Mike Pence would find a way to justify the criminalization of MLK Jr work. https://t.co/1kjlH0RYpQ
— Jamira Burley (@JamiraBurley) January 20, 2019
Pence invoking Martin Luther King Jr. is grotesque. Pence cheerleads for his boss, a bigot who literally praised people who were marching alongside the KKK and Neo-Nazis. The stain of Charlottesville is precisely what MLK Jr. tried to remove from America. Trump defended it.
— Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) January 21, 2019
This is wickedness in high places. To twist a message about peace, love and tearing down walls between communities into a justification for building a monument to racism, xenophobia and white supremacy is wickedness. Pence chooses to be evil. It's a conscious choice. https://t.co/RKQc5MXHw1
— Bree Newsome Bass (@BreeNewsome) January 21, 2019
Pence was joined by the U.S. Marine Corps in co-opting King’s message, as the military arm tweeted his quote, “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live”—another use of King’s words that incensed critics, who noted King’s embrace of non-violence and his harsh criticism of the U.S. government for continuing “year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift.”
In response to the Marines’ message, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill tweeted:
He was a non-violent, democratic socialist who denounced US militarism and called the US “the greatest purveyor of violence on earth.” https://t.co/NBBcFgHssx
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) January 21, 2019
Even the CIA got into the act on Monday:
— CIA (@CIA) January 21, 2019
To which social media users mostly responded with images and gifs. For example:
— Topoke Mwana'mboka (@Topoke) January 21, 2019
On social media, racial and economic justice advocates issued reminders that King’s work went far beyond his memorable speech at the 1963 March on Washington and his work alongside President Lyndon B. Johnson—and was characterized in his final years by his push for workers’ rights, his denunciation of the U.S. government’s assault on Vietnam, and the Poor People’s Campaign, which demanded the “radical redistribution of economic and political power”—which today’s progressives continue to face attacks for pushing.
Happy MLK day. Loving reminder that he was hated in his time for being a radical progressive and was only celebrated as an icon after his death. Take a moment to think of the people you criticize today for being “too progressive” and consider loving them while they’re still here.
— Dylan Marron (@dylanmarron) January 21, 2019
Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve been 90 this year. Remember on this federal holiday observing his birth: He would’ve wanted you to understand the fullness of his message, not just the parts that make you feel good! pic.twitter.com/cFM5Q0A1wJ
— Errin Haines Whack (@emarvelous) January 21, 2019
Be mindful of those washing moral impotence with false pieties to #MLK today.
To honor the man is to emulate—in ways big & small—his courage in standing for truths that were called radical, impossible in his time.
He feared failing truth more than the ppl who stood against it.
— Abdul El-Sayed (@AbdulElSayed) January 21, 2019