Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It is a sign of progress that Martin Luther King is now a broadly acknowledged American hero, the only non-president honored with a national holiday, celebrated by left, right and center. But we do history a disservice by whitewashing MLK’s legacy.
The truth is that, like every martyr, King was hated by many in his time. Some of his most intense critics were southern populists, like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Mississippi Senator James Eastland. And yes, many of these folks were Democrats. But the party label matters much less than the underlying ideology.
Which is why every year around this time, I get a kick out of conservatives claiming MLK as one of their own. The latest was Vice President Mike Pence, who invoked King to defend President Trump’s wall proposal, stating:
“One of my favorite quotes from Doctor King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.’ You think of how he changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process to become a more perfect union. That’s exactly what President Donald Trump is calling on the Congress to do.”
It’s hard to imagine two Americans with less in common than Donald Trump and Martin Luther King. Building a wall and demonizing illegal immigrants as being criminals and disease-ridden drug mules is a long, long way from “I Have a Dream.”
Apparently, the contrast was clear to MLK’s son as well, who spoke out on his father’s national holiday, saying: “Now, Martin Luther King Jr. was a bridge builder, not a wall builder. Martin Luther King Jr. would say love not hate would make America great. Did you all hear that? Love not hate would make America great.”
Before those words were heard, President Trump tried to blunt criticism for initially leaving any effort to pay tribute to King out of his schedule, by making an apparently impromptu visit to the MLK memorial on the National Mall with Pence. That’s great – but it doesn’t compensate for his policies to date.
The diversity-challenged Trump administration has pursued policies that are the opposite of what King supported – from their explicit efforts to roll back voting rights, tax cuts that exacerbate income inequality, proposed cuts to social programs like food stamps, a possible rollback of nondiscrimination regulations for housing, crackdowns on nonwhite immigration and asylum seekers, pursuing policies that rein-in public sector unions while earning the praise of white nationalist groups. And that’s just a partial list. It’s a reminder that despite all the change we’ve seen over the past half-century, the underlying fights are not over.
Trump might keep a bust of MLK in the oval office, but his policies and political base represent the opposite of the King tradition. And that’s evidenced by his strength in the states of the former Confederacy and his anemic 9% support among African-Americans, according to an August 2018 Quinnipiac poll.
But Pence is far from alone when it comes to conservatives trying to associate themselves with MLK. That list includes such names as conservative populist provocateur Glenn Beck, who invoked Martin Luther King in his Tea Party march on Washington after rallying his troops by calling then-President Obama a “racist” with “a deep-seated hatred of white people.” (Beck, in a post-Fox incarnation, said he regretted his comments about Obama.)
It’s all part of a twisting of American history that’s become plentiful the further we get from the original civil rights era. King won the argument over America’s soul, and his commitment to nonviolence seems safe in the rearview mirror. So we gloss over the fact that he was a target of active measures by the FBI and CIA (former FBI director James Comey kept a copy of the letter authorizing surveillance of King in his office to remind him that with great power comes great responsibility).
On the flip-side, sometimes we see bigotry defended with big words, pseudo-science and high-minded phrases. That’s when it’s worth remembering that opponents of civil rights often wrapped their defenses of hate in constitutional arguments, just as slave owners cited the bible a century before.
American heroes belong to all of us. But we do a disservice to our shared history when we whitewash the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. We diminish the real life and death struggles he faced, the vicious attacks from people in the corridors of power as well as the shouting mob in the streets.
King is accessible today because he was a reformer seeking nonviolent change in an America beset by reactionaries and radicals. He was bitterly attacked as a communist and worse among the white establishment who wanted to fight any change to the Jim Crow status quo – as well as some radical activists who felt he was not extreme enough. King’s commitment was to preach an inclusive vision of change that challenged our nation to live up to its ideals. He was effective precisely because he inspired the better angels of our nature while calling out injustice without apology.
A half-century after his death, as we honor King’s legacy, we should have a healthy skepticism of people who invoke his name while echoing some of the same arguments as his opponents. It’s another reminder that – just as politics is history in the present tense – we cannot fully understand current events without the perspective provided by history.