During the fight over the new House Speaker election, Congress member Chip Roy (R-Texas), who voted against the anti-lynching act last March, had the immoral temerity to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He did so as he explained how he was positioning himself to the hardliner right of rightwing Kevin McCarthy (R-California).
“We do not seek to judge people by the color of their skin but rather the content of their character,” said Roy.
How fitting, then, or misfitting, that Roy should oppose McCarthy, who himself has a long history of misapplying MLK quotes. Of course, that is true for many other Republicans as well, to the point where African American public intellectual Ernest Owens finally wrote an outraged and richly sourced commentary titled Republicans, Keep Dr. King’s Name Out of Your Mouths.
Yes, we have the First Amendment; anyone can quote Dr. King, the devil can quote the Bible, and the public discourse can be obscured by gaslight. One comparison of Republican leadership quoting Dr. King and yet voting against legislation that would actually further or protect MLK’s legacy, reveals a read of the MLK quotes Tweeted by Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders — all of whom voted against various voting rights and civil rights bills.
But Dr. King is the only American for whom we celebrate a national holiday, so his commitments, his actual moral authority and the meaning of what he said and wrote should be honored with accuracy and without the cynical misapplication of his words to claim he would advocate for the opposite of what he actually believed, what he lived for and, ultimately, what he died for.
The misattribution of Dr. King’s meaning is mostly, but not entirely, committed by rightwing politicians who vote against supporting health equity, against funding help for houseless people or against basic civil rights and even human rights.
Leftwing spokespeople also quote MLK to justify violence in the streets, riots, even looting. MLK was quite clear that he felt that, while all that is understandable when people are oppressed and kept in poverty and prison and killed by police, he also felt it was a very ineffective way to seek change.
King began publicly speaking about riots in 1966, always coming to this conclusion: Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.
MLK knew that, even given his track record of leading successful nonviolent struggles in the South that resulted in historic gains, his message of nonviolence was less accepted by black people in northern and western cities who didn’t care much about desegregation and who already had relatively decent voting rights — but knew they lacked other rights. King knew that the next phase of the struggle had to address the structural economic conditions that kept so many African Americans in dire poverty with poor educational, housing, health care and career opportunities.
Grinding poverty along with a police force that felt more like an occupying army in many larger cities tended to produce a complete failure of patience and a simmering rage that could be triggered into riots by just one more outrage.
Again and again, King acknowledged the heart and commitment of those who resorted to violent insurgency, in the US and abroad, when that insurgency was fighting injustice, yet he always qualified that admiration for those taking risks using violence with his belief that nonviolence is a far more effective and just path toward liberation.
Of course MLK offered his analysis based on experience, not empirical research, since virtually no quantitative research had ever been done on the relative effectiveness of violent uprising vs nonviolent uprising until literally 40 years after his death. In the end, his ground-truthing and analysis was borne out by the outstanding research done by Drs. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. Their findings and those of subsequent researchers include:
- Nonviolent insurgencies succeed about twice as often as do violent insurgencies. Riots are understandable yet much less likely to produce positive results than mass disciplined nonviolent struggle.
- Nonviolent revolutions are, on average, much faster than violent revolutions.
- Violent campaigns result in far more mortalities than do unarmed campaigns.
- Nonviolence has ousted very brutal dictators; violence has failed against relatively less autocratic regimes.
- Both nonviolence and violence can succeed and both can fail, but nonviolence succeeds more often with fewer costs.
Reading Dr. King, reviewing his speeches, will give anyone the rounded picture of him that can allow us to truly cast our comments about him in the light of truth and of what he would likely approve of. To read what he wrote in the 1950s and then ’60s — his books and his speeches — reveals a prophetic voice, one taken from us far too early, taken by violence, taken by racism.
Reading those books alongside accurate history of those times can help a person see his spiritual and strategic evolution, growth at breathtaking speed, almost as if he was indeed racing against the racist bullet that ended his life before age 40.
Those who have not gone deeply into a study of this man — this extraordinary human — do not deserve to pronounce on him, on his likely current thinking were he still alive and shame themselves when they make false claims about him.
Another canard from the left is that King was not a leader of the people because he grew up middle class. What these traducers fail to acknowledge is the constant barrage of offers King got from northern universities and churches to come work for them, as an intellectual, offers of safety and much greater income that he ruefully declined in favor of his commitment to the movement that ultimately cost him his life.
So many have said we live in a post-truth world. Can we turn that around and show respect for the facts? Dr. King, said some, was a modern Jesus and died for our sins. But his truth should live, unencumbered by willful twisting into lies about what he said, what he did and what he believed. May we have a happy MLK Day on Monday, Jan. 16. May it be one of reflection on some deep truths.
Tom H. Hastings is coordinator of conflict resolution bachelor’s degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, the senior editor of PeaceVoice and, on occasion, an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court.