McCain’s Tribute To MLK Spotlights His Opposition To MLK Day, Support Of Confederate Flag

Today at noon, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will be speaking in Memphis to mark the anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in this city 40 years ago. In a statement released today, McCain paid tribute to MLK, saying he “stirred the conscience of our nation”:

The power of his work and vision was not ended forty years ago in Memphis. Across the world, men and women are living Dr. King’s dream as they strive to extend the blessings of human liberty and human rights to all. Today, we mark a tragic day in our nation’s history while honoring the work of a man who was the voice for our nation’s highest ideals.

But this week, McCain has been “testy,” after the public has raised questions about his record on civil rights. In 1983, while serving in the House, McCain voted against legislation creating MLK Day. Most Republicans (including then-Rep. Dick Cheney) supported the bill, later signed by President Reagan. McCain complained it “cost too much money, that other presidents were not recognized.”

Discussing his record this week with reporters, McCain said, “I was pleased to be part of the fight for that recognition” of MLK Day in Arizona, one of the last states to recognize the holiday. But in 1987, when then-governor Evan Mecham rescinded the holiday, McCain said Mecham was “correct in his decision.”


McCain may pay great tribute to Dr. King today, but his support of civil rights issues has been tepid, and at times, offensive. Some highlights:

Honoring the Confederate flag: In 2000, McCain called the flag “offensive.” Later, he lauded it as a “battle flag” and a “symbol of heritage.”

Honoring racists: In 2000, Richard Quinn, McCain’s South Carolina spokesperson in 2000, called the MLK holiday “vitriolic and profane.” McCain defended Quinn, calling him a “respected” and “fine man,” refusing to fire him. McCain’s current campaign has paid the firm Richard Quinn and Associates $180,000.

Skipped African-American debate to campaign: McCain joined Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson in September 2007 in skipping PBS’ presidential debate, which featured “a panel exclusively comprised of journalists of color.”

McCain expresses regret for his earlier opposition to MLK Day, but his delayed judgment is noteworthy, as the 1983 vote was nearly 15 years after MLK was assassinated. “I had not been involved in the issue,” he says. Nevertheless, McCain still opposed the 1990 Civil Rights Act.

More at the Wonk Room.