On Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, a new debate has emerged about the exact meaning behind some of King’s words. Though King’s legacy has always been a matter of debate, Vice President Mike Pence stirred up controversy on Sunday when he quoted King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and positively compared the work of King with President Trump’s push for a border wall.
“You think of how [Martin Luther King Jr.] changed America. He inspired us to change through the legislative process to become a more perfect union. That’s exactly what President Trump is calling on the Congress to do,” Pence said in an interview on Face the Nation. “Come to the table in a spirit of good faith, we’ll secure our border, we’ll re-open the government, and we’ll move our nation forward.”
Pence’s comments drew the ire of King’s son Martin Luther King III who said, “Martin Luther King was a bridge builder not a wall builder. Martin Luther King would say, ‘Love, not hate, will make America great,'” at a breakfast in Washington on Monday. Pence was also criticized by Democratic lawmaker Jackie Speier and the NAACP, which said on Twitter that Pence’s statement was “an insult to Dr. King’s legacy.”
Speaking on Boston Public Radio, Reverend Irene Monroe, a professor of theology at King’s alma mater Boston University, said the comment in addition to being distasteful was an anathema to the ideology he espoused.
“What we’re seeing is the gentrification of [Dr. King’s] words because now it has become the province of conservatives like Pence,” Monroe said. “There is nothing to suggest that Martin Luther King would be in favor of a wall.”
Monroe also pointed out that less than a year after delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech, King traveled to Germany, where he said the Berlin Wall was “a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the Earth.”
Others like Reverend Emmett Price felt Pence’s comparison of King to Trump demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of King’s work.
“For the vice president to try to invoke this sense of leveraging a sound byte from Dr. King without the content and the context of what King was talking about was an absolute failure,” Price said on Boston Public Radio.
Price also said that were he alive today, King would most likely be against President Trump’s call for a $5.7 billion wall on the US-Mexico border. He said that though King is famous for his work on black civil rights, his ideology was of an equal and tolerant society for everyone, including immigrants.
“He was against the divisiveness and the division of people by external forces including the government,” Price said. “[He fought for] the pursuit of justice for everyone — so, justice for asylum seekers and justice for refugees who feel ostracized.”
Earlier today, Trump and Pence made a brief unannounced visit to the Martin Luther King national monument in Washington, but did not address the controversy over Pence’s comments on Sunday.