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To honor Dr. King, GOP should honor what he really believed in

Racial justice is way down on the Republican Party's priority list

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It was fitting that as the world honored the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 95 years old on the holiday commemorating his life and work, his daughter Bernice King set the record straight: “Many folks who use ‘woke’ with contempt today probably would have hated Daddy when he was alive,” she said. “He was very conscious and committed to eradicating what he called the ‘triple evils’ of racism, poverty and militarism. If you’re quoting him to stop truthful teaching about him…”

I wonder if anti-“woke” warrior Ron DeSantis’ ears were burning?

Bernice King has had to spend way too much of her time and energy correcting, scolding and rebuking not just the Florida governor and fading GOP presidential hopeful, but also all those who have never hesitated to co-opt King. And like her, I suspect even they know they would have been among the majority of white Americans who judged King a danger in 1968, the year he was assassinated at the age of 39.

It has become routine for many to lecture her about all the things her father would say or think were he alive today, which disrespects them both.

The real King is still deemed too dangerous for some who would ban books that honestly report the important American history of the Civil Rights Movement and why it was a necessary, if painful, journey for a country striving for justice.

While it’s true that the Iowa caucus proved to be more than a distraction for candidates fighting for their future in the race to become the Republican presidential nominee, most also passed on a pre-caucus forum there that could have reinforced their expressed commitment to work for every vote from every American.

Almost every GOP candidate decided, for one reason or other, to skip the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum, which has been around for 40 years, to speak to prospective voters about a variety of issues.

Ryan Binkley was the only candidate who confirmed, and his poll numbers aren’t exactly encouraging. He told NBC News that he “recognized the deep need for reconciliation in our nation, not just politically, economically, but certainly racially.” That message, a GOP vow after Barack Obama bested Mitt Romney in 2012, was pretty much obliterated by Donald Trump in 2016.

Alas, the forum was canceled, a disappointment to organizers who pointed to polls that show Republicans making gains with minority voters and thought candidates were missing an opportunity.

That’s why the chance to be public in praise of King would seem to be an easy choice to signal that attention must be paid. You would think that on caucus day, politicians would pause to offer thoughts on what King meant and take time for acts of service that have come to be the way to celebrate the day.

For most, though, it was politics as usual, which shows how much racial justice has slipped down the list of Republican Party priorities.

To be fair, Democrats did their fair share of mixing politics at King Day events, linking their party’s policies with issues King championed. President Joe Biden volunteered at a Philadelphia nonprofit food bank, not the last time I’m sure his travels will take him to an important swing state. But it also wasn’t the first time he has served there.

Donald Trump, as usual, was in a class all his own, as his senior adviser Bruce LeVell, in post-Iowa analysis on NPR, linked charges against his candidate — say, for trying to upend the results of the 2020 election — to those faced by 1960s Civil Rights activists.

“It’s fair to say that because the same so-called justice system weaponized the law to persecute Black Americans — it’s the same justice system that they use to try to persecute and block President Trump being on the ballot,” he said.

Lack of nerve has never been a problem for the Trump team.

It is heartening, though, that years of trying to flatten King into a figure suitable for a Hallmark card can’t hide the man who said, “A church that has lost its voice for justice is a church that has lost its relevance in the world.”

That last quote might be King speaking to the white evangelicals who in this week’s Iowa caucuses and beyond have steadfastly supported a man who told Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” with the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol riot as proof of destructive power I doubt Jesus would co-sign.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on X @mcurtisnc3.

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