Today is a national holiday in honor of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is now celebrated as an American hero who helped our nation to live more deeply into our ideals of freedom and justice for all people. He has an honored place with a memorial in our nation’s capital along with hundreds of other places around the country named after him. Yet this is the same person who at the time of his assassination in April 1968 was perhaps the most hated man in America. His leadership of a faith based non-violent movement for social change came to oppose what he called the “giant triplets of evil” - racism, poverty, and war. This threatened the status quo not only of those who wanted to maintain racial segregation but also the policy of the national government that was escalating the war in Vietnam. So to celebrate Dr. King with integrity, we cannot simply choose our favorite quotes from his speeches and sermons without also being open to the spirit of his words in the context of the opposition he faced throughout his 12 years as a leader of the civil rights movement. It is with this in mind, that I lift up the following event from this year’s MKL, Jr. Holiday weekend when Vice President Pence referred to Dr. King in an attempt to support the Trump administration’s immigration agenda that includes funding for building a larger wall along our southern border. The following is a summary from a news source that includes both Pence’s words and Dr. King’s own words about the Berlin Wall during a visit to Berlin in 1964:
Pence quoted King on Sunday during an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” in an attempt to sell Trump’s long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall.
“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,’” Pence said. “You think of how he changed America, he inspired us to change through the legislative process.”
But King did not support using walls to divide people, as he stated in a speech to over 20,000 people during a visit to East and West Berlin in 1964.
“It is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth,” King told East Berliners. “For here on either side of the wall are God’s children, and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.”
Dr. King and thousands of others in the civil rights movement struggled and suffered to bring change through national legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Dr. King also opposed what he considered to be unjust legislation and went to jail on multiple occasions, because he refused on obey unjust laws. It does not take much historical knowledge or imagination to know that Dr. King would not go along with using his words to support a legislative process that results in a huge barrier that is not a part of just immigration policy but a symbol of ongoing and dehumanizing separation. Neither should we.