Like many people, I was horrified by the events in Washington on Jan. 6, and I have been following the aftermath closely. The storming of the U.S. Capitol by an angry, armed mob shook America and alarmed allies around the world. The subsequent debates over recognizing the electors from the 2020 presidential election, and then debates over the second impeachment of President Donald Trump, further demanded our anxious attention.
At this moment of national reckoning, we should not be surprised that the words of Martin Luther King Jr. were invoked. The oft-quoted Dr. King has come to represent the best of American aspirations: someone who makes a stand for equal opportunity, believes in democracy, is an avatar for civil rights and justice for all. His skill for turning a memorable phrase, and the persuasive power he demonstrated as a veteran clergyman, only add to his appeal as a source for words that resonate.
One particularly striking invocation of Dr. King occurred during the debate over impeachment. Representative Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) stepped up to the podium; while holding President Trump’s behavior responsible for the rampage of the Capitol, she decried the divisiveness of official actions to hold him (or others) accountable, called instead for actions of unity and closed with the quote from Dr. King: “The time is always right to do right.”
“This is a lovely phrase, one of Dr. King’s most quoted expressions. But where did it originate?”
This is a lovely phrase, one of Dr. King’s most quoted expressions. It has been used in inspirational artwork and memes, and an article about New Year’s resolutions; it has become a relatively all-purpose good-feeling expression, given extra gravitas by the imprimatur of Martin Luther King Jr. as the author. But where did it originate? And what can we learn from the original context?
In September 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace ordered the Birmingham public schools closed in order to defy a federal desegregation order. Interviewed by the New York Times, Wallace took a defiant stance that called for violence:
The society is coming apart at the seams. What good was it doing to force these decisions when white people nowhere in the South want integration? What this country needs is a few first-class funerals, and some political funerals, too.
Even before this, terrorist violence against Birmingham’s Black community raged, with shootings of Black activists a regular occurrence. On Sunday, Sept. 15, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young Black girls. Dr. King would call this act “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” In the eulogy for the four girls, Dr. King blasted the politicians and political system that empowered the terrorists and their violence. Invoking the dead girls as “speaking” to us, Dr. King’s rhetoric soared:
They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon in a real sense they have something to say to each of us in their death. … They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. … They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.
This theme — holding politicians, especially right-wing enablers of extremism, responsible for violent actions that their words and deeds provoke — remained in Dr. King’s writings and speeches for the next few years. In 1965, Dr. King came to Oberlin College to deliver the commencement address, in which he reiterated this theme:
I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation — the extreme rightists — the forces committed to negative ends — have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” … the time is always right to do right.
That last phrase — “the time is always right to do right” — is the one that Rep. Mace quoted. So in 2021, a quote from Dr. King — originally authored as an exhortation to hold accountable those who provoke extremist violence with incendiary rhetoric — was used to make a case for inaction and unaccountability in the aftermath of a direct attack on our democratic institutions.
“Dr. King is quoted out of context all of the time. Why does this example feel so different to me?”
Dr. King is quoted out of context all of the time. Why does this example feel so different to me? This invocation of the language, symbols and martyrs of the civil rights movement is particularly painful because it attempts to steal the moral authority of a nonviolent movement to expand democracy in order to buttress the position of a violent campaign to undermine democratic institutions. The dissonance is startling when you consider that, in his own time, Dr. King was not widely revered. To embrace his words now is to erase a troubling truth: Despite his campaign for nonviolence and love, many Americans responded to him with violence and hate.
But my frustration is even deeper. I’m not sure it is possible to “do right” unless we are willing and able to name what is wrong, and there is a lot that is wrong. The assault on the Capitol was not an explosion, but rather an earthquake: a violent shock erupting from many years of built-up pressure along long-standing fault lines, including declining trust and confidence in democratic institutions; declining influence of facts, data and truth in discourse and decision-making; and deeply rooted racism and injustice. These are fault lines that will not heal quickly, nor be patched simply by the inauguration of a new administration.
“Perhaps instead of quoting Dr. King we should consider what Dr. King would actually do.”
An earthquake causes permanent changes in the geology and geography and ultimately leads to renewal of the physical landscape. On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as we contemplate what it will take to nurture the renewal of a more resilient and better democracy, perhaps instead of quoting Dr. King we should consider what Dr. King would actually do. Reject the culture of outrage, reject simplistic calls to good and evil. Restore facts and reason to the public discourse. Dismantle cultures of favoritism and nepotism, examine our own privileges and biases, connect to our neighbors with empathy and grace. This is the work that we can and must do, and it is the bedrock of teaching and learning. Here, now, we can do our best to do right.