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Lee, Pressley, Bush

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.)—flanked by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), left, and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), right—speaks at the U.S. Capitol on December 8, 2021. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Progressives Counter Cherry-Picked Quotes With MLK's True Legacy

Calling out those who have "weaponized" his words "to justify legislated white supremacy," Rep. Ayanna Pressley said King "was a radical dreamer with a bold vision for revolutionary change."

Jessica Corbett

As the FBI, right-wing political figures, and others came under fire Monday for engaging in the annual trend of dishonoring Martin Luther King Jr. by sanitizing his beliefs, progressives in Congress worked to honor his legacy of fighting for a more just society.

 "Let us not just celebrate the man, but remember the values and vision that motivated him."

Sharing some of her remarks from a 2019 MLK event, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) highlighted that the assassinated civil rights icon "spoke openly about American imperialism, unionization and labor rights, economic issues, and more," and faced intense backlash.

"People say that the sacrifice that King made was with his life, which is true but… it wasn't just the end of his life," Ocasio-Cortez said at the time. "The way he lived his life was a sacrifice. He was called a communist. He was targeted. He was wiretapped by the FBI."

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) similarly directed attention to "the Dr. King you don't often hear about," pointing out that he was an "anti-war, anti-poverty socialist radical who was denounced by newspapers, pundits, and politicians of all stripes."

Omar shared a clip from King's historic address condemning the Vietnam War—delivered on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was killed. Speaking from the Riverside Church in New York City, he asserted that "we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values."

"We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society," he said, "when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

Historian and New York University professor Thomas J. Sugrue opined about King in 2019 that "there is probably no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted, whose message is more bowdlerized, or whose powerful words are more drained of content."

Echoing that sentiment on Monday, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) tweeted that "each #MLKDay, some will cherry-pick quotes from Dr. King and reduce his legacy to that of a peaceful protestor with a dream. He was indeed a prophetic leader and early architect of the civil rights movement—but there's much more to his story."

"We often see excerpts from 'I Have a Dream' weaponized and perverted to justify legislated white supremacy," the congresswoman continued, referencing one of his famous speeches. "But the truth is Dr. King was a radical dreamer with a bold vision for revolutionary change. A disruptive movement builder seeking to upend an unjust status quo."

The U.S. holiday to remember King comes amid mounting concerns about U.S. democracy, which have fueled the push to pass a pair of federal voting rights bills. MLK's family on Monday led calls for the Senate to abolish the filibuster to advance the legislation.

Along with sharing clips and quotes from King, progressive lawmakers reiterated their demands to enact the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

"I'm following the lead of the King family," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. "Rather than celebrating, I am organizing—calling on my colleagues in the Senate to do the right thing and honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by passing voting rights legislation."

"Every time we pick up the mantle and keep up the fight for social, racial, and economic justice—including defending the sacred right to vote—Dr. King's dream lives on," declared Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). "Today, we honor his life and legacy, and we are called to fight back against the forces of hate."

King "taught us that the dream of freedom could only be realized when every person has a fair and equal vote at the ballot box," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "We must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act now, and we must abolish the filibuster to do it."

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) asserted that "the best way to honor the pillars of equality and anti-racism" that King fought for is to pass the two bills, which are designed to "stop the GOP's voter suppression tactics."

MLK's daughter and others have, in recent days, shared his remarks about the filibuster in 1963 amid debates over federal civil rights legislation.

"I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting," King said. "They won't let the majority of senators vote. And certainly they wouldn't want the majority of people to vote, because they know they do not represent the majority of the American people."

Noting those comments, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said: "Let's honor Dr. King's words and legacy with action. I'm working to reform the filibuster so the Senate can forge ahead and pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act."

Tweeting excerpts from his 1957 "Give Us the Ballot" speech, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) warned that King's legacy "is being taken for granted."

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said in a lengthy statement about King that "as our nation faces vicious attacks on the right to vote, we're especially reminded of the lessons he left us."

Bowman continued:

In his letter from Birmingham jail, he responds to those who called his nonviolent direct actions 'untimely' and 'unwise,' saying that, 'We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.' In our mission to protect our right to vote, we cannot take 'no' or 'wait' as an answer.

We know from our history that when people and institutions tell us 'wait,' it oftentimes means never… With over 262 voter suppression bills introduced in 41 states already, we can't afford to waste any more time... It is time to end the filibuster and protect our right to vote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in an email to supporters, wrote that "as the nation honors Dr. King's legacy, it would be easy for us to assume that he was universally admired and respected by the establishment during his lifetime. Nothing could be further from the truth."

After highlighting some of the icon's actions in service of his "transformative vision for what our country and the world can become," Sanders explained that "my hope is that we will truly remember what he stood for."

"Let us stop the voter suppression and allow people to fully participate in our democracy," the senator wrote. "Let us invest in jobs and education, not jails and incarceration. Let us realize that a great nation is judged not by the size of its military budget, but how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable citizens."

"Let us guarantee healthcare as a right for every man, woman, and child in this country. Let us have, as Dr. King stated, a 'better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children,'" he added. "Let us not just celebrate the man, but remember the values and vision that motivated him."

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