Today, the nation will commemorate the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King was the quintessential American. Just like the colonists, he rejected the idea of taxation without representation. He believed deeply in America’s declaration that all humans are created equal and are entitled to equal justice under the law.

He wanted, demanded, that the country he loved live up to all those things the Founders said were self-evident.

In his last days, he was starting to devote more time and energy to the causes of war and economic injustice. His death in Memphis, Tennessee, was the result of his speaking out on behalf of black garbage workers who simply wanted to be paid and treated as equals.

He doubtlessly would be dismayed right now at the spectacle of thousands of government workers scrambling to stay afloat in the richest and most powerful country on Earth.

King never fed into the fear of immigrants. He never tried to pit the poor against one another, or blacks against Latinos and others; not in a country where there is enough for everyone.

In describing his prophetic view from the mountaintop, he made no mention of a wall.

Broken cries

Of the Vietnamese, he said: “And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.”

In 2019, Martin Luther King Jr. would be disappointed but hardly surprised about Rep. Steve King, who has the effrontery to say what a lot of people secretly think. For 20 years, there has been a conspiracy of silence in Congress as King has insulted, denigrated and demonized immigrants and people of color, from those seeking asylum, to those who work in the meat-processing plants that dot the Midwest because many Americans won’t.

Of the Muslims working in those plants he said: “I don’t want people doing my pork that won’t eat it, let alone hope I go to hell for eating pork chops.”

He sued the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office for posting multilingual instructions on its voting site; he has suggested electrifying the border wall because it works for livestock; and he once noted, “The idea of multiculturalism, that every culture is equal - that’s not objectively true ... We’ve been fed that information for the past 25 years, and we’re not going to become a greater nation if we continue to do that.”

Last gasp

Last week, King was stripped of his congressional committee seats following a New York Times profile, in which he was quoted as saying:

“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization - how did that language become offensive?”

Given that Iowa is approximately 90 percent white, it can only stem from an inchoate fear that the country is changing.

The irony is, people who argue that Steve King is right about Western civilization couldn’t name three pieces composed by Richard Wagner, or explain how the Tudors came to power, or tell you what makes Hemingway, Michelangelo and Proust so significant.

King says he was misquoted, that his ancestors were abolitionists, yet he keeps a Confederate flag on his desk. It’s an unapologetic dog-whistle to those who refuse to let go of that last-gasp, lost cause of white supremacy.

But America always has been about moving forward. We are a nation of strivers, always looking to be better, always wrestling with our past, even as we charge headlong into the future.

Why is Steve King in trouble after all this time? Because the seeds planted by Martin Luther King Jr. in the hardscrabble and thorny soil of resistance are breaking through, bright and green with promise.

Because the children of those immigrants long dismissed by Steve King, now are walking the halls of Congress.

It’s time, America, to choose which King you would prefer the world envisions when it hears the word “America.” 

Reach Charita M. Goshay at 330-580-8313 or