Every Washington politician in need of a convenient backdrop to either announce their heavy-handed new crime policy or to get positive press coverage on MLK weekend is going to come to Memphis.
In May of 2017, Donald Trump’s then-Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, came here to announce that hundreds of new U.S. attorneys would be hired to use “every lawful tool” to crack down on violent crime across the country. Sessions and the media relied on our city to conveniently provide evidence of out of control gang violence he needed to sell his plan.
Attorney General William Barr used Memphis as a backdrop to announce his gun violence reduction plan called “Project Guardian” in November, barely a month after HUD Secretary Ben Carson arrived to celebrate at $950 million development project that would be part of the federal government’s “Opportunity Zones” program.
King Day weekend is always a very busy time for federal lawmaker visits to Memphis and the shallow recognition of Dr. King’s legacy by our elected leaders. So, the announcement that Vice President Mike Pence is coming this weekend to visit the NCRM and Holy City Church of God in Christ — a majority black congregation in North Memphis — is not really that surprising.
But, this particular person visiting on this particular weekend shouldn’t sit right with our city. We shouldn’t just let this one slide through without pointing out a few of the reasons why Pence really has no business coming here — on MLK weekend especially. There are lots of reasons, but here are my top 5.
Pence is a religious man — the kind who approaches foreign policy decision-making based on a strongly held belief that war with Iran is an essential part of establishing the kingdom of heaven. This could explain his eagerness to support the assassination of Iran’s top military commander Qasem Soleimani, a military officer of a sovereign nation we were not at war with. In the aftermath of Iran’s retaliatory strike at al-Asad Air Base, Iraq, and the bombing of flight of a Ukrainian jetliner that killed 176 people on board, on the heels of what could have turned out to be a sustained and deadly military entanglement with Iran, Pence’s prepared remarks said “America will not back down.”
Presciently, King said, “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Today, the U.S. department of defense budget’s projection for 2020 is over $700 billion. But at the same time, this administration has cut SNAP benefit coverage for nearly 700,000 hungry Americans , following the lead of then-Gov. Pence of Indiana who enacted work requirements for food stamp (SNAP) eligibility in his home state back in 2014.
A vice president who is eager for war while at the same time cutting social spending is no doubt a sign of a nation’s “spiritual death,” to which King alluded during his lifetime.
In 1958, King led a prayerful protest against state-sponsored murder of Jeremiah Reeves — a young man sentenced to death in Montgomery, Alabama, on an alleged rape charge. King spoke unequivocally about the unjust, racists brutality of the criminal justice system toward blacks.
“It is regrettable but true that in almost any session of our city, county and state courts one can see all of the injustices which the prophet Amos so bitterly decried and which he predicted would mean the ruin of [the Israelites’] once glorious civilization. Here Negroes are robbed openly with little hope of redress. We are fined and jailed often in defiance of law. Right or wrong, a Negro’s word has little weight against a white opponent’s. And if the Negro insists on the right of his cause, as opposed to a white man’s, he is often violently treated.
On Sunday, Pence will walk the halls of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. Will he recognize that injustice in our legal, criminal and judicial systems displayed on those walls still continues today? It’s hard to imagine he will, when we consider Mike Pence’s record on such matters.
In early 2018 Trump pardoned Maricopa County (Arizona) Sherriff Joe Arpaio — a notable birther and a man who directed and engaged in systematic and illegal racial profiling in his home state. Pence welcomed the pardoned Arpaio with open arms, calling him “a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.”
Back in Indiana, a man named Keith Cooper was sentenced to 40 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. This innocent man spent 20 years in jail, but then Governor Mike Pence refused to pardon him. It wasn’t until Pence left for Washington that his Republican successor pardoned Cooper — a decision he said thought about every day of his first month in office.
Pence left an innocent Black man to languish in prison then gushed over a white man guilty of heinous racial violence. But sure, let’s let him stroll through our sacred spaces and talk about how much he loves MLK.
Let’s face it, Pence doesn’t haven’t a great record on racism, either. Frankly, he’s tired of talking about it so much. To a group of faith leaders in Colorado in 2016, Pence said there’s still “far too much of this talk of institutional bias or racism within law enforcement” and that “we ought to set aside this talk about institutional racism and institutional bias.”
So, he chose to come to Memphis for King day — a city where the police department was recently found guilty of violating the 1978 consent decree by illegally surveilling and blacklisting community organizers, faith leaders and activists. The same city where District Attorney Amy Weirich never seems to indict officers who have shot black men like Keyshon Parham, Martavious Banks, Antonio Smith, Brandon Webber.
But, yeah, there’s too much talk of institution racism already. Best not mention it during Sunday service at Holy City COGIC. I mean, what would Dr. King say? Oh right, probably something like:
“The first thing I would like to mention is that there must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is.”
King is well-known by many as a man who fought for the right of blacks to vote freely and without interference. As governor, Pence used alleged voter fraud as an excuse to have the Indiana state police raid a voter registration program targeted at African Americans, which resulted in tens of thousands of black voters being unable to vote.
And we’re welcoming him to Memphis where we’ve been fighting our own battles against voter suppression and the disenfranchisement of black voters. Okay, cool.
All Black Lives Matter
He has made it his personal mission to block funding to Planned Parenthood, to redefine “rape” and restrict access to abortion and make it legal to discriminate against LGBTQ people for reasons he calls “religious freedom”. Oh, and it seems like he thinks women who work outside of the home “stunt” their children’s emotional growth.
Memphis is near the top of the list of worst metro areas for black women’s health, economic and educational outcomes. Pence is not a man we need to invite into our churches and communities to tell us how much he cares about the vision of Dr. King when our people are drowning in debt, unable to access healthcare, employment, and living in poverty. He’s just not.
Speaking of Churches, I want to acknowledge the recent statement from Bishop Brandon B. Porter from the COGIC General Board. Apparently, COGIC is bipartisan and does not endorse either party. OK. I imagine it’s a tricky thing for a church (and probably a nationally recognized civil rights museum as well) to say no to a vice president who wants to come for a visit.
But there are ample reasons why Pence has no business visiting Memphis this MLK weekend and we all need to be very clear about that. In his “Letter from a Birmingham” jail, MLK spoke to the need for churches take a prophetic stance against in the status quo.
“The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are”
Let’s not allow Memphis to become a prop in Pence’s re-election campaign. Join me in speaking out against his visit. Indivisible Memphis will be at Holy City at 10 a.m. Jan. 19 to protest his appearance. Details in the link below:
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