Martin Luther King, Jr., Day made for some interesting media watching today—particularly on Twitter where the hashtag #MLKDay provided some memorable moments. Celebrities and politicians, apparently, like to tweet pictures of Rev. King along with his most inspirational quotes. Many of their tweets feel de rigueur, though, as if not marking the occasion would land them in political hot water. Even worse are people who leverage Rev. King’s legacy to support this or that ideology—whether or not he would have approved.
For example, the NRA tweeted that MLK applied for a concealed-carry permit and was denied; then they vowed to continue the fight for gun rights. Meanwhile, on TV’s “Face the Nation,” Vice President Mike Pence invoked the civil rights leader in a bizarre rationalization of Trump’s border wall. It all makes you feel pretty cynical about how Rev. King’s name gets bandied about.
I’m no MLK scholar and I don’t pretend to know what he would have said about Trump’s wall, abortion rights, gun control, or a host of other issues that generate such hostility in the 21st century. What I do know is that Rev. King was a clergyman. Like my deceased father who marched on Washington with King and thousands of others in 1963, he believed in fundamental Christian tenets of love and compassion—and didn’t abandon his beliefs when the rhetoric became heated. Though King led a struggle for equality that cost the lives of countless black men and women, he managed always to conduct himself with civility—and to speak even of the most violent bigots with forbearance. He did so not because racists deserve kindness, but because degrading our discourse dissociates us from the very principles by which we claim the moral high ground. Rev. King, I believe, would have grimaced to hear a progressive politician decry Trump as a “motherfucker” just as he would have frowned at Trump calling NFL players “sons of bitches.” I imagine he, like my father, would have regarded such contemptuous rhetoric as little more than drunken brawlers plunging each other into a dark and dangerous river.
I won’t be tweeting an inspirational picture of King or a heartfelt reference to the “arc of the moral universe.” Instead, I’m going to fix in my mind—for as long as I can manage—his extraordinary decency and restraint during times that would have turned most people to violence. If, while contemplating what forbearance looks like, I quiet one strident voice in the world of social media feeds, MLK 2019 will have honored King’s legacy with something more substantial than perfunctory homages from politicians.