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‘His Dream’s Been Weaponized Into His Nightmare’: How Martin Luther King Jr’s Words Have Been Co-Opted

Politicians and celebrities routinely twist the message of the civil rights icon, turning a radical legacy into revisionist history

Martin Luther King Jr.,AP

Sixty years on, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech remains a rhetorical paragon, pushing the civil rights movement into the law books while transforming the rabble-rousing preacher into a global icon for freedom and equality. The speech did such a good job of capturing lofty American ideals that King’s name is regularly taken in vain.

Vivek Ramaswamy harks back to King while making the case for dismantling critical race theory and DEI initiatives. (“What bothers the heck out of me is right when we’re close to that promised land … [we] then obsess about systemic racism and white guilt,” he told NBC earlier this month.) Ron DeSantis claims King would have been for book bans. (“He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” the Florida governor said while stumping for his Stop Woke Act in 2021, stressing a responsibility to “protect our people and our kids from some very pernicious ideologies”.) Nikki Haley, slow to concede the civil war’s origins in slavery, says she was inspired by the civil rights icon.

“It’s apparent that Dr King’s dream has been weaponized into his nightmare,” says Hajar Yazdiha, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California who studies race and equity.

These days, King’s words are being twisted with a straight face by arch-conservatives seeking to unravel the very progressive measures King fought so hard to secure before his assassination in 1968. In her book The Struggle for the People’s King, Yazdiha traces this trend to the institutionalization of Martin Luther King Jr Day under Ronald Reagan. “He was opposed to civil rights, hated Dr King and blamed him for his own death,” she says. When Reagan realized he couldn’t stop Congress from passing the King holiday in 1983, he turned the political defeat into a legacy-making opportunity. “He decides that if he can link his legacy to King, he first of all can ward off claims that he’s racist, and second – and this is really critical – he makes sure that we remember a particular version of Dr King that is colorblind, a vision of American exceptionalism, of states’ rights, of the individual capacity to pull yourself up from your bootstraps,” Yazdiha says.

reagan signs bill surrounded by people

Ronald Reagan signs a bill in 1983 making Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday, as Coretta Scott King looks on. Photograph: Historical/Corbis/Getty Images

“So this has been a long game for conservatives. They’ve understood that if they have to accept multicultural democracy, they’re going to for their own purposes.”

As John Kirk, a civil rights history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, puts it: “King as a person has become a contested site of memory.”

The extent to which conservatives have manipulated King’s legacy is sometimes astounding. The South Dakota state representative Brandei Schaefbauer misquoted a speech to justify her decision to vote against healthcare rights for trans teens. The US House majority leader, Steve Scalise, who voted twice against establishing the MLK holiday back in the day, now calls King a national hero. Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist behind the purging of the left-leaning Harvard president Claudine Gay, makes regular references to King’s “colorblindness” while raging against race-conscious policies.

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For Donald Trump’s surrogates, invoking King has become the go-to move. Kellyanne Conway said the first impeachment of Trump was not “within Dr King’s vision”, while Trump’s attorney Ken Starr cited the I Have a Dream speech in his defense of Trump on the Senate floor. Mike Pence is a crafty operator in this area too, referencing King in arguments for a border wall, against Black Lives Matter and in the wake of the supreme court’s gutting of affirmative action.

Mike Huckabee is convinced King would hate the Black Lives Matter movement, while his daughter, Sarah Sanders, implied that the reverend doctor would have cheered the supreme court’s unwinding of affirmative action. In case it’s unclear, King actually marched, got beaten up and went to jail while pushing for affirmative action policies. But it’s no coincidence that Arkansas’ reigning political dynasty is suddenly suggesting otherwise. “Very recently, Arkansas moved from a one-party Democratic state to a one-party Republican state,” Kirk says. “And now the Republicans of today want to blame the Confederate Democrats; now they say, ‘All the civil rights stuff, the oppression – wasn’t us.’” Claiming MLK was like-minded only furthers their cause.

It’s not just politicians who are guilty of improper allusions to King. In 2013, the conservative commentator Glenn Beck brought up King’s name while defending the TV cook Paula Deen for using the N-word. Late last year, the controversy-stirring podcaster Joe Rogan ranted about how King wouldn’t have wanted California schoolchildren to learn about antiracism. King’s own monument in Washington DC misquoted him when it first opened in 2011.

The beleaguered actor Jonathan Majors appears to have a thing for Coretta Scott King. During his recent trial for misdemeanor assault and harassment, an audio recording was played in which he was heard scolding his ex-girlfriend for failing to be more like King’s wife. He made the comparison again last week, this time to heap praise on his current girlfriend, the actor Meagan Good.

girl at podium as other kids watch from memorial stairs

Elementary school students recite King’s I Have a Dream speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Friday. Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

The bad faith allusions have all but reduced King to a depoliticized mascot, revered by all, as if the FBI wasn’t closely tracking him up until his death. “A 1967 poll reflected that he was one of the most hated men in America,” Bernice King tweeted in 2020. “Many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King.”

The disingenuous MLK shoutouts have the added effect of undermining the meticulous efforts that Atlanta’s King Center, Morehouse College and other institutions have made to showcase the breadth of King’s views and activism. (He wrote five books, delivered thousands of speeches…) It’s a complicated legacy. “We kind of like to portray this as rightwing versus leftwing,” Kirk says, “but who and what King was was very much contested within the civil rights movement as well.” At one point in the 60s, activists within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized many of the non-violent protests in the south, referred to King pejoratively as “Da Lord”. “They saw him as this conservative Black preacher who wasn’t as radical as they were,” Kirk says.

By the end, King sat comfortably at the far left of the political spectrum. He pushed to close the poverty gap, and the year before his death, he gave a speech at New York City’s Riverside church titled A Time to Break Silence in which he railed against the Vietnam war. “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” he said, demanding the “giant triplets” of “racism, extreme materialism and militarism” be conquered.

king locks arms with others

King leads a march of several thousand to the courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

The speech was widely derided. The NAACP scorned King for pivoting from the civil rights effort to anti-war protests. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, reckoned the speech “could border a bit on treason”; 168 newspapers nationwide slammed the hour-long oratory. Tellingly, King read that speech from a prepared text that he hoped to send on to publications because he didn’t want to be misquoted.

Still: it’s unlikely the comedian Amy Schumer was aware of any of that history when, in the wake of the 7 October attacks, she posted a decades-old clip of King condemning antisemitism while implying that he would have supported Israel’s bombing of Gaza. That prompted Bernice King to post another clip of her father arguing for military restraint and calling on America to flex its “moral power” instead. “We have much to correct,” the younger King wrote in the caption.

Reclaim MLK is one campaign trying to reassert King’s radical legacy and showcase other instrumental figures in the civil rights movement, including the women and LGBTQ+ contributors who were overshadowed. It is just the first of many steps required in the face of conservatives’ mighty MLK misinformation machine. “We absolutely need to be countering the revisionist history, which has been so consequential for rolling back multicultural democracy,” Yazdiha says. “This doesn’t mean just correcting the record. It also means holding [transgressors] to account.”

Andrew Lawrence is senior features writer for the Guardian US, based in Atlanta.