Conservatives in McCain’s home state of Arizona subsequently blocked a measure to recognize the national MLK Day, forcing then-Governor Bruce Babbitt to create the holiday through an executive order. In 1987, when GOP governor Evan Mecham rescinded his Democratic predecessor, Babbitt’s order, McCain didn’t only stay quiet, he endorsed Mecham’s move.
Yet today, four decades after King’s shocking assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, this year’s presumptive Republican’t nominee for president sought to champion the slain civil-rights leader, while at the same time twisting King’s murder into a justification for his own continuing support of George W. Bush’s disastrous occupation of Iraq. Speaking to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Memphis, McCain said:
Martin Luther King Jr., was not a man to flinch from harsh truth, and the same is required of all who come here to see where he was in the last hours of his life. The Lorraine Motel is a civil rights museum now, but in the memory of America it will always be a crime scene as well. On the National Register of Historic Places, there are few sites remembered with more regret, or touched with so much sorrow.McSame … er, McCain would no doubt like his speech today to erase from the public’s mind his past ambivalence toward, if not opposition to Dr. King. He’s going to need at least some support from African Americans, if he hopes to take Bush’s place in the Oval Office next year and carry on the latter’s failed policies. That will be especially true if, as seems likely, his Democratic opponent in November is the dynamic Senator Barack Obama. Unfortunately for McCain, though, some people in this nation have long memories, and they aren’t going to let him off the hook for his actions, no matter how long ago they occurred. During his address on Friday, The Huffington Post reports, McCain “was met with boos and interruptions from many in the audience, as he apologized for repeatedly opposing the creation of a holiday to celebrate King’s legacy.” (Of course, it didn’t help his reception any, that a young black man had to hold an umbrella over the aged GOPer’s balding head while he spoke. Doesn’t McCain understand the significance of such symbolism?) The video of his being heckled can be found here.
If we think only of that day and that moment, there is no inspiration to be gained here. The man we remember was a believer in the power of conscience and goodness to shape events. But this place will always stand as a reminder that cowardice and malevolence lay claim to their own victories. No good cause in this world--however right in principle or pure in heart--was ever advanced without sacrifice. And Dr. King knew this. He knew that men with nightsticks, tear-gas, and cattle prods were not the worst of what might be lying in wait each day and night. He was a man accustomed to the nearness of danger. And when death came, it found him standing upright, in open air, unafraid.
We see him today from a distance of four decades, more time than the man himself lived on this earth. And it would not be unusual if his stature or reputation had faded with the passing of the years. It happens sometimes that the judgments of history overrule contemporary opinion, indifferent to the fame and approval of the moment. But this has not been the case with the first-born son of Alberta and Martin Luther King, Sr. He only seems a bigger man from far away. The quality of his character is only more apparent. His good name will be honored for as long as the creed of America is honored. His message will be heard and understood for as long as the message of the gospels is heard and understood.
And it’s not just McCain’s antagonism toward a holiday honoring King that American voters are reminded of today. It’s the Arizonan’s “tepid” support of civil rights, in general. Think Progress offers some of the highlights (or low points):
Honoring the Confederate flag: In 2000, McCain called the flag “offensive.” Later, he lauded it as a “battle flag” and a “symbol of heritage.”Meanwhile, Senator Obama, eschewing the obvious, easy photo op in Memphis, spoke during a campaign stop in Fort Wayne, Indiana, pointing out that King didn’t simply stand for racial justice, but was also an advocate of economic justice--a not-so-veiled reminder of Bush’s incipient U.S. recession and a hat tip to former Democratic rival John Edwards’ “two Americas” theme. Obama said, in part:
Honoring racists: In 2000, Richard Quinn, McCain’s South Carolina spokesperson in 2000, called the MLK holiday “vitriolic and profane.” McCain defended Quinn, calling him a “respected” and “fine man,” refusing to fire him. McCain’s current campaign has paid the firm Richard Quinn and Associates $180,000.
Skipped African-American debate to campaign: McCain joined Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson in September 2007 in skipping PBS’ presidential debate, which featured “a panel exclusively comprised of journalists of color.”
There’s been a lot of discussion this week about how Dr. King’s life and legacy speak to us today. It’s taking place in our schools and churches, on television and around the dinner table. And I suspect that much of what folks are talking about centers on issues of racial justice--on the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, on the freedom rides and the stand at Selma.The full text of Senator Obama’s speech can be found here. A video of his address in Indiana is available here.
And that’s as it should be--because those were times when ordinary men and women, straight-backed and clear-eyed, challenged what they knew was wrong and helped perfect our union. And they did so in large part because Dr. King pointed the way.
But I also think it’s worth reflecting on what Dr. King was doing in Memphis, when he stepped onto that motel balcony on his way out for dinner.
And what he was doing was standing up for struggling sanitation workers. For years, these workers had served their city without complaint, picking up other people’s trash for little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them “walking buzzards,” and in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.
But in 1968, these workers decided they’d had enough, and over 1,000 went on strike. Their demands were modest--better wages, better benefits, and recognition of their union. But the opposition was fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned back with mace. And at the end of one march, a 16-year old boy lay dead.
This is the struggle that brought Dr. King to Memphis. It was a struggle for economic justice, for the opportunity that should be available to people of all races and all walks of life. Because Dr. King understood that the struggle for economic justice and the struggle for racial justice were really one--that each was part of a larger struggle “for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.” So long as Americans were trapped in poverty, so long as they were being denied the wages, benefits, and fair treatment they deserved--so long as opportunity was being opened to some but not all--the dream that he spoke of would remain out of reach.
One presidential candidate speaking from hypocrisy, the other speaking from his hope for a better, saner, more civil America. Which would you choose?
READ MORE: “The John McCain ‘Centrism’ Fallacy,” by Glenn Greenwald (Salon); “Why We Should Fear a McCain Presidency,” by Anatol Lieven (Financial Times); “McCain’s Century-Long Problem,” by Steve Benen (The Carpetbagger Report); “McCain’s Problematic Race Record,” by Markos Moulitsas Zúniga (Daily Kos); “Martin Luther King, John McCain, and the Hate McCain Cannot Hide,” by L.N. Rock (African American Political Pundit); “McCain Won’t Apologize for Vote Against Civil Rights Act,” by Sam Stein (The Huffington Post).