The Complicated History of John McCain and MLK Day

By Saira Anees

Apr 3, 2008 1:20pm

Tomorrow Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by speaking in Memphis on the 40th anniversary of King’s assassination.

He will no doubt sound a bit different than he did in April 1987, when McCain was interviewed by USA Today about his five and a half years as a P.O.W.

Could you keep up with what was going on in the world? He was asked.

"They never gave us any meaningful news," McCain said. "They told us the day that Martin Luther King was shot, they told us the day that Bobby Kennedy was shot, but they never bothered to tell us about the moon shot. So it was certainly selected news."

Surely the John McCain of 2008 would not hold that the assassinations of King and Kennedy were not "meaningful."

(UDATE: McCain’s top aide Mark Salter says McCain didn’t mean "meaningful" in that interview, arguing that what McCain was trying to say was that the Vietnamese always gave the prisoners bad news from home, not good news.)

In fact earlier this year, McCain told a different version of the story of how he heard of King’s assassination.

"I was in prison when they announced over the loudspeaker in my cell," McCain told reporters in Jacksonville, Fla. "I was living by myself, that Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. They always told us the very bad news, but somehow avoided telling us minor events such as landing a man on the moon. I didn’t find that out until a couple years after the event itself. I didn’t know Dr. King. I was a member of the military. Obviously I admire him as all Americans do. But I did have the great honor of getting to know Congressman John Lewis. In fact, I’ve taken my children to meet him, because I think John Lewis epitomizes the struggle that continues to this day to achieve full equality in America. Congressman John Lewis is a role model to me in many respects."

**

The 1987 USA Today interview draws attention to an aspect of McCain’s political history that Democrats will indubitably attempt to use against him this November: his views on race in the 1980s do not stand up to the sunlight of America a quarter-century later.

Most glaringly, McCain as a young congressman in 1983 voted against a federal holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Most Republicans in the House voted for the holiday (89 voted for the holiday, 77 opposed), though all three Arizona House Republicans were opposed. Reps. Dick Cheney, R-Wyoming, and Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, voted for the holiday. (Cheney had voted against it in 1978.)

In December 1999 McCain 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 holiday went into effect in 1986. Only 27 states and D.C. honored the holiday that first year. Activists in state after state tried to prevent it from being recognized.

In Arizona, a bill to recognize a holiday honoring MLK failed in the legislature, so then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, declared one through executive order.

In January 1987, the first act of Arizona’s new governor, Republican Evan Mecham, was to rescind the executive order by his predecessor to create an MLK holiday. Arizona’s stance became a national controversy.

McCain backed the decision at the time. But eventually he changed his mind.

In 1990, Arizonans were given an opportunity to vote to observe an MLK holiday. McCain successfully appealed to former President Ronald Reagan to support the holiday. In a letter to voters, Reagan wrote that he hoped Arizonans would "join me in supporting a holiday to commemorate these ideals to which Dr. King dedicated his life."

Mecham, for his part, opposed the holiday, saying, "I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday."

The 1990 referendum failed.

And as a direct result, the National Football League rescinded its original decision to have Super Bowl XXVII played in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.

In November 1992, Arizonans voted to re-elect McCain over a challenge from Mecham. They also voted in favor of an MLK holiday.

But it wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states honored the MLK Holiday passed 17 years before.

**

These days, like America itself, McCain likes to emphasize where he ended up on the MLK Holiday, not where he started out.

On a phone call with conservative bloggers last September, Captains Quarters blog wrote that in response to a question about why he didn’t attend a PBS debate before a largely African-American audience, McCain said he "really did have a schedule conflict, he would have wanted to negotiate another debate. He will rest on his record on his efforts to make all Americans, including blacks, successful, especially in the military. He will continue his advocacy for all Americans; he has championed Martin Luther King day in Arizona, for instance."

But the fact that McCain at one point opposed a holiday honoring King will be a fact that the Democratic Party will make sure voters know about.

- jpt

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