Thursday, January 17, 2019

One King to honor, another to shun -- Jan. 17, 2019 column


Two men named King are in the news.

First, let us turn to a King who deserves our admiration and respect. A federal holiday Monday honors the life and memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The slain civil rights leader, who won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 for his nonviolent campaign against racism, would have turned 90 on Jan. 15. He was 39 when his life was cut tragically short by a sniper April 4, 1968.

It’s instructive, given recent events involving another man named King, to remember the MLK Jr. holiday was hard won.

Congress dithered for 15 years, and Sen. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, filibustered the bill with 300 pages of documents accusing King of being a Marxist with communist leanings.

Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York declared the papers “filth.”

Eventually Congress did the right thing and sent the bill to President Ronald Reagan, who signed the King holiday into law in 1983. The first observance was in 1986. Still some states lagged. Arizona did not recognize the holiday until 1992 and New Hampshire 1999. 

Now, though, every year on the third Monday in January, people gather for prayer breakfasts and worship services, read King’s writings and tell his stories to younger generations. Choirs sing, bells toll and people march. Many devote their time to volunteering on the national day of service.

The day demands action because Martin Luther King Jr’s work is far from done.

 “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he said.

And that brings us to the other, lesser, King in the news.

Rep. Steve King, Republican of Iowa, after a career of racist rhetoric, has finally been punished. He was kicked off the powerful Agriculture, Judiciary and Small Business committees and has been urged to resign from Congress.

The furor stemmed from a Jan. 10 interview in The New York Times.

“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization – how did that language become offensive?” King said. “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and civilization?”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, suggested King “find another line of work” if he didn’t understand why his comments were offensive. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the remarks “abhorrent.”

King tried to tamp down the outrage by insisting he did not advocate white nationalism or white supremacy, had been misquoted and his remarks taken out of context

Rep. James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina, the top African-American congressional leader, introduced a measure to condemn the substance of King’s remarks, pointing out it was MLK Jr.’s 90th birthday. Clyburn referred to a “tale of two Kings.”

The House voted 424 to 1 for the resolution. Even King voted for it. The only no vote was Rep. Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois, who thought the resolution too weak and wanted the house to censure King.

Other House Democrats thought censuring a member of Congress for speech outside Congress could be a bad precedent, especially given the new crop of outspoken Democratic members.

The full House punted on censure on a voice vote, referring the matter to the House Ethics Committee.

Steve King is at least isolated and immobilized. Several newspapers in Iowa say he has embarrassed the state long enough and should resign. He says he won’t resign, which is always what people say until the moment they do.  

So let Steve King stew in his bitter juices, and let us shun him and his boneheaded ideas while we celebrate the inspiring life of Martin Luther King Jr.

The open-air Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and bookshop in Washington remain open during the partial government shutdown. Among the MLK quotations on his memorial is this from 1959:

“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. 
You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

Those are words to live by on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and every day.
©2019, Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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