Scott Woods: When Your Martin Luther King Event is a King Nightmare
Even though J.D. Vance perfectly embodies everything that King fought against, the organizers of Columbus’ premier MLK Day event still offered the ultra-conservative senator a speaking gig.
Columbus’ annual Martin Luther King Day Breakfast returned after a two-year hiatus and picked up where it left off in 2020 by committing yet another act of political shenanigans.
Three years ago, two nonviolent protesters who interrupted the event were literally dragged out by police, to the applause of hundreds of attendees and a scolding by bishop Timothy Clarke. The event hasn’t taken place since then because of the pandemic but came back strong this year by inviting rabidly conservative Sen. J.D. Vance to speak.
The King Breakfast has lots of speakers, so there’s always one that anyone can take issue with: a preacher who oversimplifies King’s radical message, a politician looking to score points with milquetoast messages about how much progress has been made in the face of all the progress that hasn’t. However, the event doesn’t always give a platform to a speaker who so perfectly embodies everything that King fought against. And yet, this year, an organizer somewhere thought, “Let’s add J.D. Vance to the roster.”
Short of changing every political stance he’s ever taken since becoming a politician, it doesn’t really matter what Vance had to say. At best, he said nothing that moves the needle on any issue, so he was boring; at worst, he was lying. I imagine it was a mix of both. I wasn’t there—I stopped going years ago and closed the door forever after 2020’s dragging—but I imagine that if he had walked back his takes on voter suppression or abortion rights or Black Lives Matter protests or not actually wanting Black history (like King’s entire body of activism) taught in classrooms, we’d have all heard about it immediately. This is the same J.D. Vance who ran one of the most blatantly racist campaign ads ever last year, wherein he tries to gaslight everyone calling him a racist for supporting Trump’s border wall by suggesting that Biden was killing Ohioans, and that Mexico was sending over drugs and “more Democrat voters” (apparently equal evils in his mind).
If this is the kind of reaching across the aisle the King Breakfast thinks its titular hero was looking for, you have to question why the event exists at all.
That’s a rhetorical question, of course. I get why it exists. The people who run the city and the people who want to be next to them need a place to publicly absolve themselves of supporting white supremacy once a year. They need a place to pat themselves on the back for showing up and openly supporting a long-dead Black activist whose message has been so contorted by people like them that it’s not even the same mission. They need a place for the media to catch them being slightly less anti-Black than they are the remaining 364.5 days of the year (though I’d argue that with the political erasure of King’s work at the Breakfast, it’s a full 365). They need token presence at something Black outside of Black History Month. They need an on-ramp for corporations seeking to purchase absolution every year.
These are all things the MLK Breakfast supports whether or not someone of Vance’s negative pedigree is present. Imagine having to sit through that annual baptism of capitalism and head-patting while also having to listen to a rabidly inhumane senator try to convince people he supports someone like Martin Luther King Jr. That could be a contest on Survivor.
No one should be surprised that J.D. Vance was invited to speak at the King Breakfast, not because he is so fair and open-minded, but because the event has long established what values it has no interest in upholding. The breakfast isn’t about protest or change. It isn’t about standing up to authority. At $50+, the event isn’t about accessibility on behalf of the people King fought for. It is instead a perfectly honed political machine for rewarding the status quo. Contrary to its flyer, it does not honor the man, preserve his legacy, or sustain his dream. If anything, the King Breakfast is an astounding example of a King nightmare.
Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.