The GOP Missed Its Chance To Embrace Martin Luther King Jr.Roundup
tags: Republican Party, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr.
Tim Galsworthy is a history PhD candidate at the University of Sussex investigating American Civil War memory and the Republican Party in the civil rights era.
The Republican Party stands at a crossroads today. The police killing of George Floyd has left Republicans with a choice of continuing to be the party of “law and order” or following the lead of Sen. Mitt Romney and others in their midst who are calling for a reevaluation of the party’s attitudes about race and policing. Thus far, most Republicans seem to be doubling down. Many are misappropriating the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to decry protesters and champion order. In a notable example, President Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, recently deemed King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington as “the greatest example that we have seen of peaceful protest,” one that stood in contrast to the “riots” following Floyd’s death.
These references echo how conservatives — especially Republicans — have remembered King. To forestall calls for affirmative action and redistributive policies, they celebrate him as a proponent of a “colorblind” approach to civil rights, obscuring more radical parts of his legacy.
This framing is rooted in how Republicans confronted their political options in the aftermath of King’s assassination in 1968. Then, Republicans faced a choice similar to what they face today: to offer platitudes, criticize protesters or advance meaningful reform. The party chose the first two options, ultimately turning away from calls within the party to fulfill the real legacy of King and setting a course from which the party hasn’t looked back.
Many of today’s conservatives calling for another King, or using selective King quotations to criticize Black Lives Matter activists, rather than focusing on the issues motivating them to protest, are invoking a popular, sanitized memory of King. They are consciously choosing to appropriate his language and reject his calls for action. This tactic enables — and has long enabled — politicians and voters to trumpet order and exhibit faux outrage at disorder, rather than face up to endemic racial inequalities.
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