Lawmakers gather to honor King
By BOB DEANS Cox News Service | April 04,2008
WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats paid tribute Thursday to slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., by calling for an end to the war in Iraq and a new commitment to expanding economic and educational opportunities for minorities.
In a Capitol ceremony at once stirring and political, leaders from both parties joined hands and sang with the U.S. Army Chorus the African-American spiritual that became the anthem of the civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome."
It was 40 years ago today that King was shot dead in Memphis.
If he were alive today, "he would urge us to find a way to lay down the tools of violence and war," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said.
"If we are to truly honor his legacy," said Lewis, a close comrade of King's in the civil rights struggle, "then it must be our mission, it must be our mandate, to teach our children the way of nonviolence, the way of reconciliation, the way of love."
Speaking in tribute to his father, Martin Luther King III urged Congress to press for higher wages and improved education for African-Americans.
"We certainly have not come far enough," said King. "We're still trying to get the minimum wage where it needs to be," he said, as the leading advocate for wage hikes — Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. — looked on from the audience. "It must become a living wage."
The venue itself — the two-story domed room in the Capitol known as Statuary Hall — was wrought with irony and meaning.
Built in the early 1800s of marble and sandstone hewn from nearby Potomac quarries by legions of slaves, the hall was the scene of titanic House debates over slavery before the body moved to its present quarters just before the Civil War.
Speakers stood before a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and stared across the semi-circular hall into the likeness of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., drew on the memory of King — an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War four decades ago — to call for an end to the war in Iraq, where 4,012 Americans have died and nearly 30,000 have been wounded.
"There are still mountains to climb," said Reid. "One mountain we must climb: ending the war in Iraq."
Said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., "We have an awesome task before us today: bring our soldiers home, stop the war. That's what he would say if he were here today."
Kilpatrick is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes 42 African-American House members and Barack Obama, D-Ill., the lone black member of the Senate.
Republicans, too, offered tributes to King, while steering clear of linking their commemorative remarks to specific policy proposals.
"We are one nation under God," said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, "and no American believed it, or lived it, more deeply than Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said that, while King was never elected to any political office, he had exercised moral authority that made his influence "greater than many who held the highest office in the land."
It was King's son, though, who pressed the legislators to further his father's agenda for social and economic change.
"All Americans must do is roll up their sleeves," King said. "When ability meets will, results occur."
At the rate of change since King's death, it will take black Americans five centuries to reach economic parity with their white counterparts, and nearly 80 years to catch up with whites in college education, a new report concludes.
"White racism and white privilege are still alive today, as is the difficulty for America to come to terms with its responsibility for racial inequality," concludes the report, "Forty Years Later: The Unrealized American Dream," released by the Institute for Policy Studies, a non-partisan Washington think tank that focuses on issues of peace, justice and the environment.
Lewis offered a deeply personal remembrance of King.
"He was my friend. He was my big brother, my inspiration, my leader, my hero, and, later, my colleague in the struggle for civil rights." said Lewis.
"A Southern Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., redeemed the soul of America," said Lewis. "We rose up out of fear and became willing to put our bodies on the line. He led an entire generation to greatness."
King was shot dead on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray, a white petty criminal, confessed to the killing, later recanted, and died a decade ago while serving a 99-year prison term for the shooting.