Monday's federal holiday should have been about honoring the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with thoughtful reflection on his courageous struggle for civil rights. For too many national figures, the observance turned into an exercise in political exploitation and horrific displays of tone-deafness.
Some who had no business invoking King's words and deeds decided to plow forward anyway with reckless disregard. Their remarks, instead of resonating and inspiring a nation, wound up insulting King's memory.
President Donald Trump, who has defended white supremacists and repeatedly engaged in race-baiting campaign tactics, devoted all of about two minutes to lay a wreath at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Some public-relations wizard in the FBI deemed it appropriate for that law enforcement agency to tweet out a message of praise, accompanied by a 1963 quote and photo of King, honoring "his incredible career fighting for civil rights." Did anyone at the FBI bother to look up the agency's sordid history involving King?
Two days after King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, FBI Domestic Intelligence Chief William Sullivan crafted a memo that read: "We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security." FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover authorized years of surveillance on King aimed at gathering as much dirt as possible to besmirch his reputation.
The National Rifle Association came up with a Twitter gem praising King's "profound life and legacy" but quickly noting: "Dr. King applied for a concealed carry permit ... and was denied. We will never stop fighting for every law-abiding citizen's right to self-defense."
King did apply for a concealed carry permit in 1956 after his house was bombed. But he devoted his life to nonviolence and almost certainly would have been horrified to see his image and words used by a hard-line conservative gun-lobbying organization to boost its membership. Even worse, it was purported NRA member James Earl Ray, a devout segregationist, who used a Remington rifle to assassinate King.
Then there was Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who exploited the holiday to announce her entry into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
But the grand prize for tone-deafness goes to Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. Last week, King lost all of his congressional committee assignments after an interview in which he questioned why phrases like "white supremacist" and "white nationalist" are deemed so offensive. The congressman tweeted on Monday that he has "long agreed with (Dr. King's) speeches and writings."
The problem with tone-deafness is that the afflicted seem so utterly incapable of self-reflection. Perhaps in future years they can remember this simple rule: On MLK Day, just give it a rest.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH