Martin Luther King and the Republican Race For Righteousness

If I believed in a god, and one with a sense of humor, I would think she had a big chuckle over timing the South Carolina Republican primary for the same week the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Day.

On May 2, 2000, South Carolina became the last state to make King’s birthday an official state holiday. But South Carolina also then created another official state holiday on May 10 — Confederate Memorial Day. Prior to this legislation, state employees had the choice of celebrating the birthday of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Martin Luther King.

Some of our South Carolina politicians think nothing of rewriting history, even when they can easily be caught. For instance, Congressman Joe Wilson claimed that he spearheaded the effort to have King’s birthday recognized. A friend of Wilson’s from his state legislature days said Wilson must have been confused about which holiday he supported, which was really Confederate Memorial Day. When confronted with circumstantial evidence, Wilson said his memory must have failed him. (This is the same Joe Wilson who famously yelled “You lie!” at the country’s first African-American president during a speech to a joint session of Congress.)

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul voted against Martin Luther King Day both in 1979 and 1983, when the bill passed. In one of his newsletters, Paul referred to the holiday as “Hate Whitey Day.” Paul, who is viewed as the presidential candidate least likely to lie, claimed that he neither wrote nor read the newsletters that bore his name.

Martin Luther King is not the controversial figure he once was in South Carolina, with racism today subtler and less institutionally sanctioned. But in 1962, at the height of the civil rights movement led by King, the Confederate battle flag was placed atop the State Capitol by vote of an all-white legislature. In 2000, a so-called compromise moved the Confederate flag to the Capitol grounds. When the NAACP continued its boycott of South Carolina, state senator Arthur Ravenel, a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, called the NAACP the “National Association for Retarded People.” He later apologized–to the mentally handicapped for comparing them to the NAACP.

Presidential candidates are often asked what they think of this flag situation. Former candidate John McCain went back and forth about whether it was a states rights’ issue or a symbol of racism and slavery. In 2008, Mitt Romney took a stronger stance, saying he didn’t think the Confederate flag should be flown at all. I’ll be interested to hear if he changes his mind about this, too, in time for Saturday’s election.

The safest, if not the most courageous, answer for national candidates is to call the Confederate flag an issue for South Carolinians to decide. In fact, last month Newt Gingrich said at a town hall meeting, “I have a very strong opinion: it’s up to the people of South Carolina.” He added that he is opposed to segregation and slavery. Well, that’s a relief. But I’m quite sure that Martin Luther King would disagree with Newt about what he just told a Charleston audience was the biggest domestic threat to America: “Removing God from the public arena.”

In 1998, fiscally conservative Charleston County councilman Tim Scott insisted on posting a Ten Commandments plaque on the wall of County Council chambers, ignoring advice that he would lose the anticipated legal challenge. Scott insisted that the display was needed to remind residents of moral absolutes. After the plaque went up, the Charleston Post and Courier asked Councilman Scott if he could name all the Commandments. He couldn’t. As expected, the court declared the display unconstitutional and handed taxpayers a substantial bill for legal costs.

Councilman Scott was not laughed off the political stage. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2010, the first African-American Republican in South Carolina to serve in Congress. He is now a tea party favorite, and all Republican presidential candidates are seeking his endorsement. He is my congressional representative, though I can’t say that he represents my views. I wonder what Rev. Martin Luther King would have thought about all this.