Even if history is written by the winners, it can be twisted by the losers.
For instance, some who are sympathetic with the lawbreakers who stormed the U.S. Capitol have decided the time is perfect to invoke the name and words of Martin Luther King Jr.
Here’s the backdrop. In advance of today’s national holiday honoring King, I wrote a column mentioning his bravery in obtaining voting rights for Black people. I ended my piece by contrasting King’s work in getting the ballot for oppressed Americans with President Donald Trump’s attempt to stay in power by discarding legal votes in a fair election.
Trump on Jan. 6 repeated his claim that the election was stolen. A mob of his angry followers stormed the U.S. Capitol in hopes of stopping Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory over Trump.
Many readers responded to my column. Some lashed out at me. Others said Trump himself had attempted voter fraud.
Yet another reader sent me a note with a photo of King and one of his quotes: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
The reader then provided his own commentary about what King said: “It applies to people that are not left wing BLM types too.”
To suggest that the rioters who tore through the Capitol had been voiceless defies the record.
Trump had the president’s bully pulpit. He used it to exhort other bullies. They infiltrated the seat of government in hopes of stopping members of Congress from certifying Biden’s victory.
The reader who mentioned King’s statement about riots provided no context for what the civil rights legend said. I will, in hopes of dispelling any notion that King advocated violence.
King supported the constitutional right of peaceful protest, and he used it to lead myriad efforts to desegregate the country.
Would-be assassins in Montgomery, Ala., were enraged by King’s successful campaign to end segregation on city buses. They bombed King’s home and fired a shotgun through his door.
King took a brick to the head when he marched in Chicago to end housing discrimination. Neither he nor his backers retaliated.
King turned the other cheek until a rifleman assassinated him at age 39.
So how did King, leader of nonviolent movements for social justice, happen to discuss rioting?
In 1967 he wrote his fourth book entitled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? By then, race riots had exploded in Chicago, Los Angeles and Cleveland. More rioting occurred in Newark, N.J., a month after the publication of King’s book.
Here are the additional relevant parts of what King wrote in Where Do We Go From Here: “A riot is the language of the unheard. It is the desperate, suicidal cry of one who is so fed up with the powerlessness of his cave existence that he would rather be dead than ignored.”
King went on, describing a riot as the breaking point “when the Negro says, ‘I’m tired of living like a dog.’ “
“And,” King wrote, “as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over.”
Not once did King advocate a riot or violence.
A small part of King’s analysis of his time is being co-opted. Some hope a few of King’s words, absent any context, will somehow justify the violence perpetrated by Trump’s followers.
If King had lived, he would have questions for Trump and his backers. Among them: Were they denied the right to vote, as Black people in his time were? Were Trump and his backers powerless to be heard? Did they contest Trump’s defeat in courtrooms, state legislatures and other forums?
Arguing to reverse his defeat in Georgia, Trump received a one-hour telephonic audience with fellow Republicans responsible for elections in that state.
Imagine if a Black person in King’s lifetime had asked for a similar meeting after being denied the right to vote. Those in power would have dismissed him as uppity. If the protester persisted, he might have been jailed, beaten or lynched.
King witnessed all of this. White police officers and politicians in certain cities were more gentle than others. But every adversary was committed to segregation.
“We don’t want to break their bones. We only want to break their spirits,” Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi once told a prison warden after the arrest of freedom riders.
There’s no parallel between Trump’s claims and King’s actions.
Something else is beyond compare. Only one will go down in history as the powerhouse for good.