Mike Pence Is a No-Show at MLK Ceremony

News & Politics

It was a cold, cold, Martin Luther King Jr. Day down at the MLK Memorial in Washington DC on Monday morning—so cold Vice President Mike Pence couldn’t make the 3.5-mile trip from his residence on Massachusetts Avenue to the Mall for a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the birthday of the slain civil rights leaders, born 89 years ago today.

"The Honorable Mike Pence" was listed on the event program but was missing in action—not that many people in the diverse crowd of 150 people cared. The loyal lieutenant of a racist president would not have been welcome at a King birthday celebration, not after Trump’s racist ravings of the last few days. Pence, it seems, accepted the invitation and then had a change of plans.

On Sunday, Pence laid a wreath at a private ceremony where he couldn't be heckled. He tweeted out a banal statement and Samantha Bee stung him for it. 

I suspect the only people who cared about the missing VP were the Secret Service men anxiously scanning the faces in the crowd.  And they were probably glad Pence was MIA, because if he had shown up, I’m pretty sure somebody in the righteous crowd would have called him on it and we would have a public "incident," another symptom of the racial animus Trump embodies and inspires.

Wray of Hope

Instead, the crowd had a chilly good time, as buoyant as one can be in 16-degree weather. The 20-man choir of the People’s Community Baptist Church opened the up-tempo gospel tune, “He’s Been Good To Me Up,” and followed with the more militant spirit of “Army of the Lord."

The Trump administration guests who did show—FBI director Christopher Wray and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke—were greeted with impeccable cordiality by the hosts, the Memorial Foundation, which created the place of honor in the heart of Washington featuring a mammoth bust of King and a marble-lined promenade displaying some of his most famous sayings. 

The memorial was dedicated by President Obama in 2011, on a day I recall was both happier and warmer. Obama's speech evoked both the illusion of King as a peaceful all-American saint and the reality of King as a radical agitator.

Seven years later, Zinke’s comments were forgettable boilerplate, while Wray's were rather more interesting. The eighth director of the FBI made a point of repeating that the Bureau had “to do the right thing” regardless of politics and popularity.

To my frostbit ears, that sounded like a quiet rebuke of the right-wing Republicans who have been trashing the Bureau—and special counsel Robert Mueller—for investigating the president and his collaboration with Russian government agents in the 2016 election.

Wray’s claim that “the FBI helps bend the moral arc of history toward justice” was an exercise in the cynical cooptation of King's words.

But Wray did have the decency to acknowledge that the FBI had spied on and harassed King when he was alive. All new FBI agents, he said, are required to take a course in the history of how the Bureau treated King. Protecting civil liberties, he insisted, is a core mission. 

King, with his sense of humor and politics, would have appreciated the ironies of the never-ending struggle for social justice.

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement sought help from the White House (from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) in the face of hostility from racist FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Today the FBI director is seeking to rally support from the civil rights community in the face of attacks from a racist White House.  

In the 1960s, the vice presidents (first Lyndon B. Johnson and then Hubert Humphrey) would go down in history as men who stood up for the civil rights of all Americans when it counted most. Today we have a vice-president who stoodup the civil rights movement on the occasion of King’s birthday, not daring to show his face in public for fear of justified mockery.

The choir's closing rendition of "We Shall Overcome" was less a confident claim than a mournful dirge, a fitting close to a day when the moral arc of the universe looked long as hell and felt much colder.

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