Pence invokes MLK to defend refusal to say “Black lives matter”: “All life matters, born and unborn"

Pence distorted MLK's record and referred to his anti-abortion views when pressed repeatedly on his refusal to BLM

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 29, 2020 10:21AM (EDT)

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and his anti-abortion views as he sought to defend his refusal to say "Black lives matter."

CBS News host John Dickerson pressed Pence on his refusal to say the words "Black lives matter" amid weeks of protests over police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

"One thing protesters would like to hear is leaders say, 'Black lives matter.' You won't say that," Dickerson said. "Why?"

"All my life, I've been inspired by the example of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When I was in Congress, I traveled to his home church in Montgomery with Congressman John Lewis. I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday," Pence replied. "I cherish the progress that we have made toward a more perfect union for African-Americans throughout our history, and I've aspired throughout my career to be a part of that ongoing work. It's really a heart issue for me."

He then cited his anti-abortion views in defense of not saying the words.

"And as a pro-life American, I also believe that all life matters: born and unborn," Pence said.

The vice president then added that he opposes the message of the protests against police brutality.

"What I see in the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement is a political agenda of the radical left that would defund the police," he said. "That would tear down monuments. That would press a radical left agenda and support calls for the kind of violence that has beset the very communities that they say that they're advocating for."

"So you won't say, 'Black lives matter?'" Dickerson repeated.

"John, I really believe that all lives matter," Pence answered. 

Pence's comments, in fact, distorted King's legacy.

"While this vision of King as a peaceable and unifying figure may be comforting, it is incomplete at best and in many ways misleading," Mark and Paul Engler, the authors of "This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First," wrote in Salon. "King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) often drew criticism not only from defenders of segregation but also would-be allies who believed the protests the organization helped lead were unduly abrasive and ultimately counter-productive. In this way, King bears much in common with the #BlackLivesMatter activists who are currently being attacked for perceived impatience and incivility in promoting their cause."

It was not the first time Pence has publicly refused to say "Black lives matter."

The vice president similarly insisted that "all lives matter" in an interview with a Pennsylvania news outlet on Juneteenth, the holiday which commemorates the end of slavery.

"People are saying, 'Of course, all lives matter.' But to say the words is an acknowledgment that Black lives also matter at a time in this country when it appears that there's a segment of our society that doesn't agree," anchor Brian Taff pressed Pence. "So why will you not say those words?"

Pence said he disagreed that "there's a segment of American society that disagrees, in the preciousness and importance of every human life."

"And yet, one final time, you won't say the words, and we understand your explanation," Taff replied.

After Pence's interview on Sunday, Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Dickerson that it would not have mattered what Pence said, pointing to a video shared by President Donald Trump in which one of his supporters shouted "white power."

"Even if the vice president had said Black lives matter, it would be hollow," she said. "And I wouldn't believe it. Because he is the vice president of the United States, just like we have a president, just like we have senators and they should be judged by their actions and what they do."

Ifill took issue with Pence claiming to be guided his entire life by King.

"Then he would know what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said about protests in 1965 and '66 that protested police violence in African-American communities when he said riots are the language of the unheard," she said. "So to hear him say that and then at the same time hear his comments about protests demonstrate that the vice president is far from understanding the significance of this moment and really what his obligation is when people across the country in 50 states, not just Black people, but people of all races are coming together and standing together and saying enough is enough."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Black Lives Matter Donald Trump George Floyd Martin Luther King Jr. Mike Pence Politics