John McCain is in Memphis today commemorating the death of Dr. King, but he can’t run from his spotty history on the MLK holiday and civil rights. In 1983, McCain was one of 77 Republican Congressmen to vote against establishing a federal holiday in MLK’s honor. McCain was in the minority even among his GOP colleagues: even Dick Cheney, who voted against the holiday in 1978, voted for it in ’83. Later, McCain would explain his vote by saying he “thought that it was not necessary to have another federal holiday, that it cost too much money, that other presidents were not recognized.”
In 1999 McCain admitted that he was wrong to vote the way he did. He told NBC’s Tim Russert, “on the Martin Luther King issue, we all learn, OK? We all learn. I will admit to learning, and I hope that the people that I represent appreciate that, too. I voted in 1983 against the recognition of Martin Luther King… I regret that vote.”
The 1983 vote, however, is the not the end of the issue. In 1987, Arizona’s Republican Governor repealed the state’s recognition of King; McCain supported the decision. He changed his mind in 1990, when a King holiday was put to a vote in the state.
But even by 1990, McCain hadn’t come to appreciate what King stood for. The Civil Rights Act of 1990 sought to overturn “Supreme Court rulings that made it much more difficult for individual employees to prove discrimination.” The legislation was fought by big business, because it imposed new penalties on employers convicted of job discrimination. McCain voted against the act four times.
And in his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain employed a man named Richard Quinn in his South Carolina organization. Quinn was a toxic figure, writing:
“King Day should have been rejected because its purpose is vitriolic and profane. By celebrating King as the incarnation of all they admire, they [black leaders] have chosen to glorify the histrionic rather than the heroic and by inference they spurned the brightest and the best among their own race. Ignoring the real heroes in our nation’s life, the blacks have chosen a man who represents not their emancipation, not their sacrifices and bravery in service to their country; rather, they have chosen a man whose role in history was to lead his people into a perpetual dependence on the welfare state…”
According to AlterNet, “Quinn has also advocated electing David Duke, and sold T-Shirts through his magazine celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.” McCain defended Quinn as a “respected” and “fine man.” He refused to fire him from the campaign.
In McCain’s speech today he said all the right things:
Even in this most idealistic of nations, we do not always take kindly to being reminded of what more we can do, or how much better we can be, or who else can be included in the promise of America. We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I made myself long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona. We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans. But he knew as well that in the long term, confidence in the reasonability and good heart of America is always well placed. And always, that was his method in word and action — to remind us of who we are and what we believe. His arguments were unanswerable and they were familiar, the case always resting on the writings of the Founders, the teachings of the prophets, and the Word of the Lord.
He’s evolved on the issue: millions of Americans have. But when it counted, McCain got this issue wrong. And today, his positions on economic justice, housing, and the war show that while McCain may appreciate King’s importance, he still doesn’t understand the meaning of King’s message.