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New House Speaker used MLK quote to oppose reparations

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After being elected the 56 U.S. House Speaker on Wednesday, news outlets and TV pundits are rushing to report Louisiana Republican Congressman Mike Johnson’s views on social and political issues.

However, his 2019 remarks opposing reparations for American descendants of enslaved people tells Black folx all we need to know about him.

After four rounds of voting, the dysfunctional Republican Party has finally elected a Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson, now second in line to the presidency, as House Speaker. It’s a vote that ensures GOP leadership remains far-right and uncompromising.

Over the next several days, reporters will surely be grilling House Speaker Johnson about his plans for military aid to Israel and Ukraine, his past efforts to overturn the 2020 election for Donald Trump, and his approach to working with Democrats.

A brief glance at his four-year-old argument against reparations would save reporters the trouble of understanding his approach to politics: denial, gaslighting and false truths.

House Speaker Mike Johnson once used MLK quote to argue against reparations

Speaker Johnson, much like 400 years of radical representatives before him, doesn’t believe Black Americans deserve reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, or any other form of systemic racism.

His opposition is hardly surprising. Johnson is an ultraconservative White male Republican from a former slave-holding state, and he’s American.

A strong majority of Americans, including Democrats, have consistently opposed reparations for descendants of enslaved people, though support has grown slightly in recent years. Roughly 38% percent of Americans support reparations, up from just 26% in 2016.

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Meanwhile, in typical fashion for politicians upholding the status quo, Mike Johnson used a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to argue against restorative economic justice for Black American Freedmen descendants.

Back in 2019, the House Judiciary Committee discussed House Resolution 40. The bill would establish the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. Since 1989, a version of the bill has been reintroduced in Congress but never passed.

During the hearing, Rep. Johnson gave the opening statement for the Republican Party.

House Speaker Johnson misquoted Dr. King

In an attempt to use the words of the nation’s greatest civil rights leader to support his argument, Johnson quoted a phrase from Dr. King regarding foot races.

“Finally, I would urge the members of this subcommittee and the House of Representatives as a whole to ponder carefully the message that will be conveyed by the passage of this bill [HR 40],” Rep. Johnson said, preparing to quote Dr. King.

”‘When you’re behind in a foot race,’ the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1963, ‘The only way to get ahead is to run faster than the man in front of you. So when your White roommate is tired and goes to sleep, you stay up and burn the midnight oil.’ Dr. King’s words reflect an important tradition of self-reliance” — I’m still quoting — “that has had eloquent advocates in the African-American community,” Rep. Johnson said.

I’m not sure whether House Speaker Johnson was ignorant enough to believe Dr. King would actually advocate against economic justice or whether he believed his colleagues would be too ignorant to question him.

I don’t need to be a Monday-morning quarterback on a half-century-old quote from Dr. King or debate the intention of his words with a man who tried to disregard the votes of Black Americans across the country. Dr. King’s words speak for themselves.

Other famous quotes comes to mind that politicians seldom use when whitewashing Dr. King’s legacy.


Shortly before his assassination, and after securing voting and housing rights for Black Americans, Dr. King began to speak more about what he called the evils of capitalism, materialism and militarism.

He explicitly condemned capitalism as “exploitation” of Black enslaved people and the poor, and he advocated for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

“And when White Americans tell the Negro to lift himself by his own bootstrap, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation,” Dr. King said.

“Now, I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. But it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

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New House Speaker has history of ignoring facts

In his revisionist response to the idea of reparations, House Speaker Mike Johnson, when he was just a representative in 2019, urged Black Americans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

“Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others. All of them were saying, in their different ways, that African-Americans were not powerless to better their lives until America owned up to its historical sins and offered them a generous financial settlement. The point is as important today as ever,” Rep. Johnson said.

Unsurprisingly, he insinuated that White Americans had already pulled themselves up without government aid and compared reparations to a government handout that weakens Black people’s independence.

Dr. King: “Coming to get our check”

Why is it that White Americans opposed to reparations always seem to willfully ignore the government handouts that built this country? Slavery itself was a government handout, allowing human beings to buy, sell and trade other human beings for profit.

Enslavers who were forced to remove the shackles of bondage after the Civil War were compensated by the U.S. government.

White settlers who traveled from the South to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) were granted the freedom to claim land for themselves in an effort to populate the plains. That was a government handout, too.

Despite the misrepresentation of facts from politicians like House Speaker Mike Johnson, who likely would’ve opposed him during his lifetime, Dr. King made his stance on reparations crystal clear.

“They are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with, and this is the reality,” Dr. King said.

“Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.”

Ultimately, it’s unclear whether Rep. Johnson’s views have changed when it comes to reparations. But if they’re any indicator of his current beliefs, Americans can expect more gaslighting and denials of truth from the 56th United States House Speaker.

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