(Bloomberg) -- At a December speech to propose legislation allowing students and parents to sue schools if they say they’re forced to learn critical race theory, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis invoked an unlikely name: Martin Luther King Jr.
“You think about what MLK stood for -- he said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” the Republican said behind a podium with a “Stop Woke Act” banner. “You listen to some of these people nowadays, they don’t talk about that.”
As Americans observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, honoring the civil rights leader’s work and legacy following his assassination in 1968, the event celebrating unity and equality is expected to spark greater divisions as politicians and corporations dissect his quotes for their agenda.
“If politicians insist on using my grandfather’s words in front of the cameras, then we must insist that they live up to his legacy and be willing to put everything on the line for one of our most fundamental rights,” King’s granddaughter Yolanda Renee King said in a November essay for Teen Vogue.
DeSantis isn’t alone on the debate around the so-called critical race theory, which posits that any analysis of American society should take into account its history of racism, or citing King’s comments to back up the cause. Bryan Hughes, a Republican Texas state senator, said the movement around the theory is the “inverse” of what King taught, mirroring comments by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy that same month.
“Critical Race Theory goes against everything Martin Luther King Jr. taught us -- to not judge others by the color of their skin,” the California Republican congressman said. “The Left is trying to take America backward.”
The tweet drew a response from King’s daughter, Bernice King, urging McCarthy to study her father’s teachings beyond the last lines of the “I Have a Dream” speech. The civil rights icon’s words have been “cherry-picked to peoples’ convenience and comfort,” she said in a TV interview a year ago.
“If we’re going to post something about MLK, if we’re going to as a brand, as a corporation, as a capital, if we’re going to use MLK, how are we going to engage in it?” said Kirk “Jae” James, a clinical professor at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work. “That’s the accountability, especially in 2022.”
While the recent citations of King’s words have raised tensions in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and other attempts to push for greater equality, their past use have also drawn controversy.
In 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s tweet citing King’s “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” speech led Twitter users to point out an uncomfortable allegation -- that the FBI was culpable of spying on him through his lifetime.
A similar pushback came in 2021, when the social media account for “Star Wars,” owned by the Walt Disney Co., posted a tribute to King. Instead, the attention turned to how its stars John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran have been open about the racism they experienced while a part of the franchise.
A tweet by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau or ICE also didn’t go well; likewise for Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican who has espoused the contentious “great replacement” theory, for his post with King’s quote about the “ultimate measure of a man.”
With the frustration building around legislation pushed by states such as Texas seen as aimed at suppressing Black voters, King’s family in December asked people not to celebrate the day without the passage of the law to protect voting rights -- more than three decades after the first federal observation of the holiday.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden also cast doubt on his push for voting-rights legislation shortly after a key Senate Democrat expressed her opposition to the plan, a significant setback for the party -- and Black voters.
“If we’re really talking about celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., voting rights was a cornerstone of his legacy,” Arndrea Waters King, the civil rights leader’s daughter-in-law, told CNN. “We cannot simply in good faith celebrate him or celebrate that legacy with this current attack on access to the ballot box.”
Unlike other U.S. holidays, companies are also being pushed to avoid drawing shoppers with MLK sales.
“That’s part of our consumer culture,” said Randal Jelks, a professor of African and African-American Studies and American Studies at the University of Kansas. “King Day is going to be subject to that in American culture, and people who are selling are going to try to sell you a vacation, try to sell you a washing machine, or even pralines on that day.”
Still, several brands had offered a twist, using the holiday a year ago as an opportunity to announce new donation initiatives or find ways for employees to volunteer in their communities. Among them included:
- Nordstrom Inc., which announced it would double its donation amount to anti-racist organizations in an effort to reach $1 million per year by 2025
- Patagonia Inc., which said it would close its stores in observation
- Streetwear brand Kith, which partnered with the Martin Luther King Jr. Estate on a capsule collection of sweatshirts and t-shirts, beginning at $65, whose proceeds would benefit organizations including Martin Luther King III’s Drum Major Institute
- Furniture company West Elm, which said it would donate half of proceeds of purchases made from its initiative to support Black-owned and small-businesses to the 15 Percent Pledge
Nicole Cardoza, the founder of the newsletter Anti-Racism Daily, said remembering how King’s views on capitalism changed over time is crucial to committing to his work.
“I don’t think it’s enough for a brand to just post a quote on his name,” she said. “How are you actually challenging your role in capitalism to be able to support people that have been historically marginalized? I would love to see what that action looks like beyond what they post on social media.”
There are more than 140 million Instagram posts with the hashtag #quotes, and over 1.48 million tagging “Martin Luther King” or “Martin Luther King Jr.” Yet as his daughter Bernice said last year, respondents to a 1967 poll called her father “one of the most hated men in America,” and that he was ultimately assassinated for his beliefs, words, and actions.
“For the most part, people don’t really understand how radical his message was,” said James from New York University. “So every year, it feels like safe for us to just show up and talk about ‘I Have a Dream’ without talking about racism, without talking about sexism, without talking about homophobia and all the other isms that exist today.”
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
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