In a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, Congress this week awarded the late Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King the Congressional Gold Medal.
The ceremony took place in the Capitol rotunda and featured speeches from party political leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. It also included a performance of “We Shall Overcome.” As the United States Army Chorus performed the song that encouraged civil rights activists during protest marches and sit-ins, the speakers and audience crossed arms, linked hands, and swayed as they sang along.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky spoke of how King, a “pastor with a booming voice and potent message,” faced “defenders of segregation head on—not with violence, but with reason, argument, and an unwavering confidence in the justness of his cause.”
Speakers recognized King did not win the civil rights fight alone. A Smithsonian exhibit entitled “Changing America” is on display at the Museum of American History until Sept. 7. It shows how King continued a fight that began centuries earlier. Though Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing some slaves took effect in 1863, King and thousands of others marched on Washington in 1963 to demand the liberty and equality still denied to African Americans at that time.
John Lewis was arrested 24 times for his civil rights involvement, but now he represents the people of Georgia in the House of Representatives. One of the “Big Six” civil rights activists on the planning committee for the March on Washington, he spoke at the ceremony and shared how the Kings’ marriage encouraged those working along side them.
“Often history remembers speeches or fights and figures, but I cannot forget their love,” Lewis, a Democrat, said. “From their union came an enduring strength that carried many of us through the darkest days of the movement.”
At the ceremony on Capitol Hill, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, quoted King: “The time is always right to do what is right.”
All speakers agreed that we must continue the Kings’ legacy, but how that should be done was less clear. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, signed in 1965 to prohibit voting discrimination, is the subject of a current political debate, and some speakers used the Gold Medal Ceremony as a platform to back their stance on the issue. In addition, supporters of such issues as same-sex marriage and abortion have tried to portray them as an extension of the civil rights fight. Alongside information about an Indian rights march and anti-sweatshop campaign, the Smithsonian exhibit displayed a gay and lesbian rights protest sign as part of the legacy of the civil rights March on Washington.
Bill Owens, founder of the Coalition of African American Pastors, remembers the civil rights movement as a long struggle. Now, he’s dedicating his efforts to fighting same-sex marriage, which he says is “no civil rights movement.” He pointed out the cake-makers and florists being pushed into contradicting their faith by participating in weddings that violate their religious beliefs. Instead of adding to the nation’s civil rights, Owens said, legalizing same-sex marriage is taking away “the opportunity to express and live our faith.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised “Dr. King’s insistence on the truth,” at the ceremony. But activists like Owen are wondering where the nation will turn in search of that truth.
The gold medal ceremony for the Kings featured a recording of former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s remarks when he signed the Civil Rights Act. They are as fitting now as they were then: “Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts. … Let us hasten that day when our unmeasured strength and our unbounded spirit will be free to do the great works ordained for this nation by the just and wise God who is the Father of us all.”