It’s time to Break It Down!
This is another holiday week. While many may have moved on, I have chosen not to do so. Instead, I am opting to carve out a moment of reflection on a few of the ideals so appropriately notated as millions across the United States, and around the world memorialize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. over the course of his birthday/Holiday weekend and beyond.
In reflecting on the many works of Dr. King, I decided to revisit a post I wrote and posted Wednesday, January 19, 2011, and that I reprised last year, January 18, 2017, examining the advent of the King Holiday. It’s been 32 years since the initial observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday (MLK DAY), and 35 years since President Reagan signed the MLK, Jr. Holiday bill into law. Now seems an apt time to take a look into the rear view mirror of time.
After over three decades of inculcation into the very fabric of our society, it may be largely forgotten that the conceptualization, submission and continual resubmission of the idea, the enactment, and the gradual national observance, was not the product of universal acceptance of a grand and enlightened concept, but rather, was emblematic of the civil rights struggle itself; steeped in controversy, and the eventual victory of a relentless movement to achieve richly deserved, and long overdue social justice.
Several members of Congress, and a number of states, and even a President, using a host of creative means, sought to undermine, outmaneuver, sabotage, subvert, and otherwise derail the efforts of the measure’s proponents. Ultimately, the movement was consolidated, snowballed, and would simply not be denied.
The effort to create a King Holiday was started by U.S. Representative John Conyers, Michigan, shortly after Dr. King’s death, in the spring of 1968. It was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1979, but fell 5 votes short of the number for passage in the Lower Chamber.
High profile opponents to the measure included Senator Jesse Helms, NC, Senator John McCain, AZ, and President Ronald Reagan. Both Senators voted against the bill, and Senator McCain publicly supported Arizona Governor Evan Mecham for his rescission of MLK Day as a State Holiday in Arizona. The campaign however, reached a critical mass in the early 1980’s. Spurred on by Stevie Wonder penning a song in King’s honor called, “Happy Birthday,” a petition drive to support the campaign would attract over 6 million signatures. It has been called the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. History.
Buttressed by what had become a wildly successful public campaign, Congress soon followed suit. The proposal passed in the House by a vote of 338-90, and in the Upper Chamber by a vote of 78-22. Given the dimensions of this overwhelming support, in the form of bicameral veto-proof votes, President Reagan signed the provision November 2, 1983, and it became Federal Law. The first observance under the new law took place January 20, 1986, rather than on January 15th, Dr. King’s birthday. A compromise in the legislation specified that the observance take place on the Third Monday in January, consistent with prior legislation (Uniform Monday Holiday Act).
Of course, that was not the end of the story. It would actually take more than 30 years after Dr. King’s death before the Holiday was fully adopted and observed in all 50 states. Illinois holds the distinction of being the first State to adopt MLK Day as a State Holiday, having done so in 1973. Twenty years later, in 1993, for the first time, some form of MLK Day was held in each of the 50 States. It was not until 2000 that South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges signed a bill to make MLK Day a paid holiday for State employees; giving the Palmetto State the dubious distinction of being the last of the 50 States to do so. However, Mississippi also sets itself apart by designating the Third Monday in January as a shared Holiday that honors the memory of Robert E. Lee and Dr. King…two fine southern gentlemen.
So with that extensive preamble, let’s move to the issue of the day. As you must surely know, on November 8, 2016, Americans voted, and based on Electoral College results, elected Donald J. Trump President of the United States. Three days shy of the observance of the first anniversary of his historic inauguration, one he claims to be the largest ever witnessed (despite the fact it was not), his unverified claims, outrageous tweets, and dubious comments continue to frame him in stark contrast to his recent predecessors. I will not leave that last comment hanging, without noting that while many Americans believe that is a peculiar, and often unfortunate situation, there is a certain element of our country that believes Mr. Trump is not just a good thing, but exactly what they had hoped for, and precisely what our country needs. Suffice it to say, those are individuals with whim I disagree. Vigorously!
Last week, President Trump met with at least eight other people including several Republican and one Democratic Senator, to discuss reaching a deal between Republicans and Democrats to advance legislation on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In what sounds like a classic case of Trump being Trump, the President is alleged to have used hateful and vulgar language to describe Haiti and the 54 countries on the continent of Africa.
According to Senator Dick Durbin, D-IL, President Trump repeatedly referred to “shitholes” or “shithole countries.” After several reports that after allegedly making the comments, the President spent the evening calling friends and supporters to revel in the media response generated by the comments. The following day, after seeing how it was playing on Fox and Friends, he was prompted to revise his approach, and responded that he had said nothing derogatory about Haiti. No mention of African nations, for the record.
Two Republican Senators, Cotton and Perdue, initially said they had no recollection of the President making any such comments. A couple of days later, by the Sunday new shows, they both experienced miraculous memory recall, and amended their stories to insist they were confident the President said no such thing. Lest we view this and conclude this was just a partisan (Durbin-only) attack on the President, Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the Republicans in the room, also confirmed that Trump made the comments. He said on Monday (unlike Cotton and Perdue) his memory has not evolved.
To add another layer to the lunacy of this entire discussion, a White House official suggested the president said “shithouse” rather than “shithole.” There is a fair amount of speculation that this parsing permits the senators (Cotton and Perdue) to deny use of one word without denying the broader context.
If you thought the banter couldn’t get any wackier, you obviously lost sight of the fact this matter includes Trump. So yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen. During the course of the interview, Democratic committee member Patrick Leahy asked Secretary Neilsen about her attendance at the aforementioned meeting. Before going any further, let’s stipulate Neilsen was under oath. In addition to the alleged “shithole/shithouse” comments, Trump also said (which has not been debated) we should instead be bringing in more people from Norway.
To that end, Senator Leahy asked Secretary Nielsen whether Norway was a predominantly white country. The question, of course, ties into the narrative that in addition to hateful and vulgar, this President employs a racist modus operandi. Her response, for lack of a better word, was stunning. She said:
“I actually do not know that, sir. But I imagine that is the case.”
Really! Are you serious? Yesterday in general was not Neilsen’s finest moment. She also took incoming from Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris about her claimed amnesia regarding Trump’s offensive remarks. Here’s the bottom line. That we were force-fed this ridiculousness throughout the course of the MLK Holiday Observance is a hugely sad commentary. Dr. King left us many deep and wise things to contemplate. At this moment he GOP, collectively, is elevating one above all others in my mind. It is this:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
I suffer no illusion that Donald Trump is a friend to the cause of equality, diversity, or inclusion. Whether you label his words and actions racist (they often are) is inconsequential to me. But if you insist that you are not, but cannot find the courage to speak out when he spouts off like he did last week, you display cowardice as best, and quite possibly reveal a picture window into your own racism. I fully and completely understand the R-word is a lightening rod to which many folks instinctively default to describe as “playing the race card” when African Americans are forced to tag specific words or actions with that appellation.
In the final analysis, regardless of whether your President said “shithole,” or “shithouse,” it is but “A Distinction Without A Difference: So Not King-like!”
I’m done; holla back!
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