Monday, January 16, 2017
The confluence of Inauguration Day and the King Day holiday should be instructive. In the days just before we witness the transfer of American power, we celebrate our finest critic of that power.
Through most of his brief public life Martin Luther King, Jr. steadfastly stood apart from partisan politics, and with the exception of actively opposing Sen. Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential campaign, he avoided endorsements. That left him free to criticize leaders from either party. It also left him open to being claimed by leaders from every party.
That has been all the more true as he has become an American saint in the half century since his death. Thus it was both unexpected and unsurprising when vice president elect Mike Pence showed up at the memorial this morning.
For at least a generation, American leaders both liberal and conservative have tried to co-op Dr. King for their own purposes. While Mr. Pence did not make any public remarks at the memorial this morning, I’d bet money that if he had he would have quoted King’s line from the Dream speech longing for the day when his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
For many conservatives, that single line amounts to the sum total of what King stood for, and they lift up those words to buttress their claims about a color-blind society in opposition to every type of affirmative action and to every effort to champion diversity as a worthy goal. When Mr. Pence and his wife knelt in prayer at the base of the King relief, I suspect that, if he actually lifted a silent prayer, it was along the lines of encouraging the Almighty to speed up that day when all God’s children would be so judged.
I would be serious money against any suggestion that Pence was praying for the fuller realization of Dr. King’s dream. Given that he will be part of an administration headed by a man who said, in his campaign, “I’m good at war […] I love war,” I doubt that Mr. Pence was praying for the dream of a man who said, “any nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Though Cheryl tells me I can never bet the house, it would be safe and certain to bet that the incoming vice president was not praying for the full dream of a man who told his staff (in 1966) “we are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism. … There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”
I doubt seriously that he offered up a prayer of confession asking for God’s forgiveness for his part in the most racist presidential campaign in recent memory.
Mr. Pence was not the only person at the memorial this morning standing in need of grace. On principle, that would be all of us, for sure. Specifically, though, I’m thinking of the older middle-aged African-American gentleman wearing a clerical color beneath a t-shirt with a hate-filled message targeted at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. A little noodling around the Googles helped me identify the man as Minister LeRoy Swailes, whose “ministry” seems to revolve around comparing gays and lesbians to zoo animals. Minister Swailes’ t-shirt proclaimed the hate-filled message of a web site titled thirdgender666.
I was at the memorial as a volunteer, and I was wearing my NSP swag, so I did not confront the man. But I did wonder (aloud to a nearby tourist) what possessed someone to think that hate speech was appropriate at the foot of a statue honoring a man who dedicated his life to love. Sadly, Mike Pence's theology seems a lot closer to that of Minister Swailes than to that of the man before whose granite-carved likeness he offered prayers.
Dr. King understood well the difficult weave of power, justice, and love. As he said toward the end of his life, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
None of that happens without struggle. Power never conceded anything without a fight, as Frederick Douglas noted during the days before the Civil War. That’s something that Rep. John Lewis understands well, even if Mr. Pence’s running mate does not.
My morning was redeemed by meeting an elderly African-American woman who also understood that truth in a deeply personal way. I did not catch her name, but she told me a bit of her story. She was one of a handful of students who desegregated the DC public schools just prior to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruled separate but equal to be unconstitutional. A few years later, as a college student at Howard in the early 60s, she was part of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee group, and was arrested more than once in the struggle to desegregate public accommodations in the mid-Atlantic states.
John Lewis, of course, was president of SNCC in 1963 when he spoke a few minutes before Dr. King articulated his dream. Mike Pence was just a kid when Lewis and King and thousands of others were putting their lives on the line in the cause justice, freedom, equality before the law, and nonviolence as a realistic ethic for public and national life. Mr. Pence’s running mate, on the other hand, was a high school kid preparing to avoid the draft into the Vietnam era American military.
Mr. Pence has said that his decision to enter public life was inspired, in part, by Dr. King's life. I hope he stops back by during his time as vice president for more than a photo op and a quickie prayer. I hope he spends time with the words carved into the walls. They might inspire some longer, deeper praying.
My own prayer this particular week in America is pretty simple: God help us all.