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Conservatives' appropriation of MLK just reached a shocking new low

Conservatives have made a habit of invoking the name of Martin Luther King to scold Black people.
Image: Josh Mandel at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a campaign ad.
Josh Mandel, an Ohio conservative running for Senate, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in a campaign ad.Josh Mandel For Senate via YouTube

Josh Mandel, a conservative Republican and Marine veteran running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, began running an ad this week that opens with an Ohio woman stating, “Critical race theory is crap!” before cutting to the candidate standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. That's the bridge where, in 1965, state troopers with clubs and tear gas set upon a group of voting rights activists led by a young John Lewis. Two weeks later, federal authorities stood guard as Martin Luther King Jr. led activists across.

The affront is a poignant example of the phoniness of conservatives’ invocations of Martin Luther King Jr.

Desecrating the site of one of the most spectacularly violent attacks on civil rights protesters by using it as a prop in an ad that denounces critical race theory was bad enough. But, then, in a move that was exponentially more audacious and disrespectful, Mandel accused Bernice King of being ignorant of her assassinated father’s politics.

The affront is a poignant example of the phoniness of conservatives’ invocations of Martin Luther King Jr. in their ongoing project to co-opt his legacy. It’s an example of the way white conservatives mention him not in any sincere effort toward racial healing or reconciliation but to feed other white conservatives’ insatiable desire to put Black people in their place.

“Martin Luther King marched right here,” Mandel says in the ad, “so skin color wouldn't matter.” Then the ad cuts to photos of Mandel, who is white, posing with Black Marines in Iraq during America’s unjustified occupation of that country. “I didn't do two tours in Anbar Province, fighting alongside Marines of every color, to come home and be called a racist,” he said. “There's nothing racist about stopping critical race theory and loving America.”

Then a voiceover comes in: “Josh Mandel — pro-God, pro-gun, pro-Trump.”

It dishonors the memories of Lewis and King to promote an agenda that will bring nothing but more harm to Black people at a site where they struggled for Black people’s advancement.

It’s also illogical to pick a site where the law was so violently used to hold back Black people to dismiss a discipline that investigates the innumerable ways the law has done just that. On top of that, King, who won a Nobel Peace Prize, abhorred war for its destructiveness and because, he said, money spent on war is money that doesn’t get spent helping the poor. Calling out his name in a proudly militaristic ad that idolizes guns and former President Donald Trump is an abomination.

And there’s no reason to believe that it wasn’t a calculated abomination. Because Mandel wasn’t done giving offense.

There’s no reason to believe that it wasn’t a calculated abomination. Because Mandel wasn’t done giving offense.

He posted the video to Twitter, tagged Bernice King and claimed that a visit to Atlanta’s King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where King is CEO, had inspired his ad. When she correctly questioned his understanding of her father’s beliefs, the 44-year-old Mandel argued back that Martin Luther King Jr. “knew the importance of the Second Amendment” and told the 59-year-old Bernice King: “Study your history better.”

You won’t find any better evidence of the white American belief that Martin Luther King Jr. belongs to them, that he would approve of them more than he would approve of Black people and that white people, the authorities on what Martin Luther King Jr. believed, can invoke his name to scold Black people. Bernice King’s twitter feed is filled with such arrogance: Random people contradicting her about her father and arguing that he’d take their side, not hers.

Given that Bernice King politely corrected a tweet from Mandel in September when he equated supporting critical race theory to “stomping on the grave of Martin Luther King,” the probability that he tagged her Tuesday with a plan to talk down to her is about 100 percent. Because, in today’s Republican universe, being ugly and racist and disrespectful is celebrated as being the sign of a fighter. “You want a fighter,” Mandel says at the end of his ad, “send in a Marine.” Mandel used the “stomping on the grave of Martin Luther King” language in a March 13 interview, a full six months after the man’s daughter politely asked that he not “use my father or his grave to increase fear regarding CRT.”

After that September exchange with the candidate, Bernice King tweeted: “So many people who furiously and erroneously tell me what my father believed absolutely refuse to study his teachings beyond a few quotes. That’s very telling and extremely unfortunate.”

Bernice King didn’t have to explain where the loud and wrong get their quotes. Most of America knows only one part of one Martin Luther King Jr. speech: the unwritten, unplanned coda to the political manifesto he presented at the March on Washington in 1963. And many white people misinterpret that segment as his opposition to seeing or mentioning race.

But Martin Luther King Jr. was clear on the race of America’s oppressors. There are many quotes that attest to his clarity, and his daughter chose one to tweet Wednesday: “[T]he problems in the world today, as they relate to the question of race, must be blamed on the whole doctrine of white supremacy, the whole doctrine of racism, and these doctrines came into being through the white race and the exploitation of the colored peoples of the world.”

She said the fearmongering over critical race theory “is aimed at banning all teaching of substance on past & current devastation of white supremacy/racism. It is cruel to quote my father, who was assassinated for working to eradicate racism, poverty & militarism, to facilitate that fear.”

“Study your history better,” Mandel said. He clearly hasn’t studied his. But what’s worse are the attempts by him and his fellow Republicans to keep everybody as ignorant as they are.