Just last week, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was removed from all of his House committee assignments after he questioned when words including “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” had become offensive. So when the congressman tweeted out a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, he was greeted with astonishment, as critics responded with images of people raising their eyebrows and choking on water.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his all for all. I have long agreed with his speeches and writings,” the Iowa congressman began. “Today I think of this MLK quote, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ ”
An avalanche of responses piled up, urging the Republican — who has a long history of nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric and has endorsed a Toronto mayor candidate who falsely claimed a “white genocide” is happening — to just “sit this one out” or to never even utter Martin Luther King Jr.’s name again. Some pointed out that multiple historians or fact-checkers have disputed whether King Jr. ever even said that quote, believing it may instead have been paraphrased from a 1965 speech expressing a similar sentiment. Political columnist Charles P. Pierce said the congressman’s tweet was the equivalent of irony flogging itself, “roll[ing] around in salt for an hour” and rinsing off “with isopropyl alcohol.”
“Guys, we have located the absolute worst MLK Day tweet, entries are now closed,” tweeted Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur.
But if Worst MLK Day Tweet really were a competition, Steve King surely would not be the only one vying for the title.
It might as well be an annual event: Seemingly without fail every year, backlash and apologies abound over comments or gestures described as tone-deaf to King’s legacy by critics, including King’s own family. This year was no exception. But it might have been exceptional for the sheer number of Martin Luther King Jr. Day messages that were denounced as trivializing or disrespecting the civil rights leader’s memory. People and organizations including the National Rifle Association, Vice President Pence, the Library of Congress and the Florida State football team, managed to bungle their tributes, critics said. An Iowa bar had to cancel an MLK-themed kegger. President Trump scheduled no events to honor the late civil rights activist Monday before deciding to visit the MLK memorial in Washington for a few minutes — which the Rev. Al Sharpton called a “drive-by” tribute.
Bernice King, his daughter, appeared prepared at the start of the day for the disappointments.
“There will be an overflow of King quotes today,” she wrote on Twitter. “We can’t, with truth and consciousness, quote my father, while dehumanizing each other & sanctioning hate.”
Pence kicked off the waterfall of criticism Sunday when he compared Trump’s border-wall negotiations (or lack thereof) to King’s efforts to create a better country, which drew a rebuke from King’s son. Pence, appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” cited this quote from King: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
“You think of how he changed America,” Pence then said, referring to King. “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: Come to the table in a spirit of good faith. We’ll secure our border; we’ll reopen our government.”
During a Monday morning breakfast honoring his father, Martin Luther King III said he had heard about Pence’s comparison. He was not pleased. “Now, Martin Luther King Jr. was a bridge builder, not a wall builder,” he said, CNN reported. “Martin Luther King Jr. would say love not hate would make America great. Did you all hear that?”
Pence wasn’t the only Trump administration official to draw criticism. After White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said King “gave his life” to fight racial inequality in a tribute on Twitter, critics were swift to point out that in fact King’s life was taken from him when he was assassinated.
A half-hour later, it was the NRA’s turn to write an ill-received message, at least in the eyes of some, including Bernice King.
“Today, the men and women of the @NRA honor the profound life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” the NRA’s tweet began. “Dr. King applied for a concealed carry permit in a ‘may issue’ state and was denied. We will never stop fighting for every law-abiding citizen’s right to self-defense.”
The gun-rights organization was referring to an incident in 1956 when King applied for a concealed-carry permit in Alabama after his house was bombed following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as chronicled by UCLA law professor Adam Winkler in his book “Gunfight.” But, as Bernice King pointed out in a response to the NRA later in the day, “This is not the full story, @NRA.” King later abandoned guns in favor of nonviolence.
“My father evolved beyond this moment,” Bernice King wrote. “Your tweet is a regrettable, very unfortunate one, especially on today. I invite you to study him and his nonviolent philosophy at @TheKingCenter.”
Meanwhile, a football recruiter for the Florida State Seminoles photoshopped an image of King appearing to do a “tomahawk chop” onto a flier, citing an MLK quote in a since-deleted tweet from the official account. The Library of Congress commemorated the birth of Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in a tweet it later said was pre-scheduled. And the Mississippi Department of Revenue, last week, notified Mississippians that it would be closed Monday “in honor of General Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” Mississippi and Alabama are the only two states that still officially celebrate the general’s birthday on the same day, the AP reported.
Both FSU and the Library of Congress apologized. The Mississippi Department of Revenue deleted its tweet, saying nothing.