There is a uniquely nauseating feeling that overcomes the senses when people bathe themselves in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy while standing for a set of principles in stark opposition to his life’s work. It’s like smelling an odor so powerful, your head jerks backward in shock. In a bizarre way, it’s a tribute to King’s enduring greatness that even politicians who would have proudly stood with George Wallace and Bull Connor have to doff their hats to his memory.
Yet it doesn’t make it any less repugnant when abject racists like Donald Trump and his lickspittle Mike Pence pay their respects in a way that makes you imagine them either laughing or clenching their teeth. Their tweets marking the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, which absolutely, positively were not written by anyone else, said the following:
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Earlier this year I spoke about Dr. King’s legacy of justice and peace, and his impact on uniting Americans. #MLK50 Proclamation: https://t.co/XXtPO0VX5A pic.twitter.com/SH0esMSyMT
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 4, 2018
50 years ago today, Dr. King's life was tragically cut short – but that did not stop his immortal words, his courageous example and his faith from inspiring generations of Americans. Today we honor the man and the Dream. #MLK50
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) April 4, 2018
There are too many examples to list for when these two shrunken men trampled on King’s work of creating—and fighting—for a beloved community. Donald Trump in particular, who was engaging in housing discriminating against black tenants in 1968 when King was gunned down in Memphis, has no business speaking about King’s legacy. It’s enough to say that the very day this tweet was sent, Trump was also braying about sending troops to our southern border to stop a caravan of immigrants challenging the very inhumane acts of racism which King devoted his life to fighting.
But here in the sports corner of the nation, we should remember how Trump and Pence responded to people who were also attempting to walk in King’s footsteps: Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police violence.
What these players did was to live King’s legacy: It was nonviolent direct action aimed at making the white population confront the gap between the ideals of this country and the lived experience of black Americans.
And just as the players were excoriated for speaking out by many people, egged on by a right-wing noise machine, King was also at the end of his life deeply unpopular and polarizing because he was standing up against the war in Vietnam as well as criticizing the harm of capitalism. King was relentless against “the evil triplets” of militarism, racism, and materialism. This earned him enemies, one of whom snatched his life at age 39.
The players were not attempting to be martyrs. They were not trying to put themselves in physical harm’s way, or risk death threats, or lose their jobs. They knew that was a risk, but the goal was to be heard. It was difficult to have this desperately needed debate about police violence, however, over the racist fury of Donald Trump, calling the players “sons of bitches” at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, and continuing his attacks through January’s State of the Union address.
I’ve spoken to players who hired private security to protect their families after Trump’s speech and his continual Twitter tantrums. It was ugly as sin: a redirecting of the focus of the protest away from police violence and toward a self-righteous aggression towards the players for having the temerity to speak out at all. That’s what Donald Trump does: He distracts and demonizes. Mike Pence then showed himself to be nothing but his hand puppet when he staged a walkout from an Indianapolis Colts game at the taxpayer’s expense to embarrass protesting players.
Now Colin Kaepernick is looking for work and another kneeling player, his friend and teammate Eric Reid, is on the outside of the league looking in, waiting for the phone to ring. NFL owners, who gave Trump millions throughout his campaign and inauguration, have cut a deal with one set of players—giving money to a set of causes—and are punishing the others. They are playing divide and conquer, while also appeasing Trump, who gets to bask in the glory of seeing those punished who attempted to walk in King’s path.
The next day, Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, a Donald Trump donor, took back his apology for his infamous comments last year when he compared protesting NFL players to “inmates running the prison.” Now he says to The Wall Street Journal, “The main thing I regret is apologizing.”
This is who they are. They should be honest about that. And part of being honest is getting Dr. King’s name out of their mouths. It is quite literally the least they could do.