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Please Let 2021 Be the Year Republicans Are Banned From Quoting MLK


Republican Nancy Mace speaks at a rally.

Last week during the House of Representatives’ hearing on the second impeachment of Donald Trump, Republican Rep. Nancy Mace engaged in a longtime favorite conservative pastime that is beyond time to put a stop to: twisting Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to fit a Republican agenda.

“Today 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,'” Mace said from the House floor.

First of all, her use of that specific quote makes no sense in this context, since Mace is arguing that while she thinks Trump might have committed impeachable offenses, she also thinks House Democrats are rushing the impeachment process. Which is weird, because if impeaching Trump is the right thing to do, then shouldn’t the time be right (or ripe, as King is quoted as having actually said) to do it?

Let’s look at the full context of the quote Mace reduces to an SUV bumper sticker slogan. The quote comes from a sermon King delivered at the National Cathedral just days before his assassination. Leading up to the line Mace cherry-picked, King condemns white people for their criticism that Black people were pushing too hard and too fast for equality. These “good” well-meaning white people would say that time will sort things out if African Americans would just “be nice and patient and continue to pray.” King called this a “myth.”

“There is an answer to that myth,” King said. “It is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'”

So Mace used King’s words to try to make the exact opposite point of how they were intended. But wait, it gets so much worse!

After misquoting King, Mace continues: “And if we’re serious about healing the divisions in this country, Republicans and Democrats need to acknowledge this is not the first day of violence we’ve seen. We’ve seen violence across our country for the last nine months.”

That’s right! Mace goes straight from invoking MLK to condemning the Black Lives Matter protests! She also literally says there is “violence on both sides of the aisle.”

I would very much like it if Nancy Mace were forever banned from quoting Dr. King, but she’s not the only one. Republicans just love to twist his words to suit their own purpose, even—or maybe especially—if that purpose is the literal opposite of King’s message.

The most persistent example is their flagrant misuse of King’s address from the March on Washington—the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany recently called it “the greatest example that we have seen of peaceful protest” because there’s nothing white people love more than whitewashing and sanitizing King’s history and the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

For decades, white politicians, and especially white conservatives, have been twisting King’s words from this speech to advocate for a colorblind society. They say that they, like Dr. King, do not wish to be judged on the color of their skin, which is nothing but a tactic to shut down conversations about racial inequality. They use those words as a shield to deflect accusations of racism and to justify their complacency on issues of racial injustice.

They also use them to justify engaging in actively destructive, racist policies.

Republicans have used that speech to campaign against affirmative action. They’ve used it to promote racist immigration policies. Ronald Reagan was shamefully successful in using King’s words to push his dream of “colorblind racism,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva dubbed it.

MLK’s daughter Bernice King fired back at a conservative British member of parliament who tried to co-opt her father’s words for his own racist agenda last year.

“I have a dream… will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character,” Ben Bradley cluelessly wrote in a since-deleted tweet. “His point was that skin colour doesn’t matter. We’re equal.”

King fired back to let Bradley know that that absolutely was not her father’s point.

“My father’s point and central to his beliefs, teachings and activism (per his speeches/books) was this: We cannot condone racism, but must eradicate it as one of the pervasive, systemic, overt and destructive Triple Evils, with militarism and poverty being the other two,” King responded.

“Why use my father’s words to encourage being ‘colorblind,’ civil and complacent concerning injustice, instead of to inspire and educate toward being courageous in seeking true peace, which includes justice?” she wrote in a separate tweet.

I really do love seeing Bernice King dunk on clueless white conservatives, but it would be best for everyone if we were just somehow able to implement a blanket ban on their ability to clumsily or maliciously quote MLK entirely. The time is ripe.

(image: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.