Heard on the Hill

Democrats and Republicans embrace MLK’s once-controversial diatribe against ‘moderation’

Doug Jones leads bipartisan group in reading ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’

Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones  arrives in the Capitol for a vote on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan group of senators led by Alabama Democrat Doug Jones on Tuesday took to the Senate floor to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” commemorating the anniversary of the slain civil rights legend’s famous jeremiad, and showing just how far public opinion has shifted on the once-controversial civil rights icon.

King’s letter, written in April 1963 from his jail cell, is not a tirade against the guardians of segregation.

No, his letter is an unflinching criticism of those who would ostensibly be his allies: the white clergymen who claimed to want racial justice and equality, but who were growing wary of King’s tactics and seeming impatience.

The letter reads in part:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds. You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
King’s words “lit a flame of hope in the hearts of those souls who had become weary with the weight of injustice,” Jones said during his remarks on the floor. He was joined in the reading by fellow Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Tim Kaine of Virginia, along with Republicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Ted Cruz of Texas and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Watch: D.C. residents and visitors remember MLK Jr. 50 years later

Jones talked about growing up in the Birmingham suburbs during the time of King’s arrest and “absorbing” the lessons of the civil rights movement. He spoke in glowing terms about the impact King’s words had on his own life.

“Each time I read his words, I am in awe of his courage and resolve in the face of such incredible personal risk,” he said. Before entering politics, Jones was U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997. One of Jones’ most famous cases involved the prosecution of several Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four African-American girls.

Jones won a stunning upset in a 2017 special election to fill the Senate seat left open when Jeff Sessions departed to lead the Justice Department. He won with significant support from black voters and a lower than expected turnout for his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, who was accused by several women of engaging in sexual misconduct dating back to when the women were teenagers. However, Jones’ 2020 re-election chances in deep red Alabama are up for debate.But the reading of King’s letter marks perhaps one of the greatest transformations of public opinion in American history. At the time of MLK’s assassination, a plurality of the country felt “sadness,” but a whopping 31 percent of Americans felt he “brought his killing upon himself.” And while he was alive, only 36 percent of white Americans felt King was actually advancing the cause of black civil rights more than hindering it, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Today, 85 percent say he had a positive impact on black American life.

Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation famously attempted to blackmail King with phone recordings of his infidelities, and opened a file to investigate whether he had ties to communists. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina once said the civil rights leader advocated “action-oriented Marxism.”

But in the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination in 1968, some began calling for a federal holiday to honor him. And in 1983, the bill to make it so passed overwhelmingly in both the House (338-90) and Senate (78-22). Those opposed included recently deceased Republican Sen. John McCain, who, during the 2008 presidential election, traveled to the site of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, to give a speech denouncing his vote. Meanwhile, the holiday’s supporters included recently retired Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, home to some of the bloodiest and most tragic episodes of the civil rights era.

Though President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law on Nov. 3, 1983, he privately expressed doubts about its validity, telling a governor who opposed the measure that King’s reputation was “based on an image, not reality.” Reagan would later apologize to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, for not refuting charges that King was a communist when asked about his FBI files during an October 1983 news conference. Despite Reagan’s insistence on an alternative day of national recognition rather than a full-blown holiday, the popular measure was ushered to passage by Republican Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee (who employed Lamar Alexander as a staffer in the 1960s).

Jones and the other senators delivered their remarks this week as King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, looked on from the gallery, along with Charles Steele Jr., president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by King and several ministers in 1957.

Once polarizing, King’s words are now embraced by leaders across the political spectrum. Some latch onto his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to achieve racial justice. Conservatives often cite his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” in calling for a colorblind society. Others on the left point to his “poor people’s campaign” to advocate for economic equality.

Meanwhile, antiwar pacifists admire his opposition to the Vietnam War. But the embrace by the political establishment shows the power in King’s message and its vindication to his critics in his jailhouse letter.

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