Today’s Courier Herald Column:
On Monday, the nation observes the swearing in of President Obama for a second term, marking our ritual of a peaceful transition or reaffirmation of power every four years. The actual swearing in for the President, as prescribed by the Constitution, took place on Sunday.
On Monday, the country also observes a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. His actual birthday was January 15th.
The optics of the two events are not trivial and should not be ignored. America has not only elected its first black President, but re-elected him. As divided of a people as we are politically, we should at least take a note of the progress the country has made in the struggle for civil rights. Four and a half decades after the life of Dr. King, we now largely divide ourselves along ideological grounds, not based on skin color.
The juxtaposition of the inauguration and the birthday of Dr. King also serves to highlight the very nature of King’s movement on non-violent social change. Power is obtained and maintained in this country through peaceful measures, unlike what we witness with increasing frequency around the globe.
We are not a nation that takes up arms to make our political points. About the worst most who seek positions of power will face are negative campaign ads rather than violence and physical harm. We must take occasions such as we see this week to celebrate this fact. It is one of the things that keeps America unique, and a beacon to others who seek self-government.
Dr. King’s birthday reminds us that things were not always this way in our country for all of our people. He paid the ultimate price in the struggle for equality. Others paid with their lives as well, while more still bear the scars earned during the struggle.
One of those is Georgia’s own Congressman John Lewis, holder of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lewis earned that medal 48 years ago at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis, leading a peaceful march to Montgomery, was unarmed yet beaten by law enforcement and an awaiting mob who opposed his views and his struggle.
Lewis being unarmed not only underscores the courage required to face his duty that day, but the underlying point of the movement for non-violent social change. Had Lewis been armed to defend himself, he would have likely himself been killed with he and those with him portrayed as unlawful aggressors. Instead, the brutal images from that Bloody Sunday helped galvanize a nation to the side of right over that which was clearly wrong.
This reminder is unfortunately necessary because Rush Limbaugh, deciding to push back on the current movement for gun control, has decided to question not only whether Lewis was actually beaten, but why he didn’t exercise his own right to bear arms.
“If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?” asked Limbaugh on Friday, clearly missing the point and significance of the moment. Or perhaps, choosing to stir controversy where there is none. Regardless, the question is remarkable in its audacity and ignorance.
Limbaugh’s overall commentary was an attempt to argue that some use racism as a political argument today as if there has been no progress since the 60’s. Denigrating the acts of bravery that made the progress possible voids any possible validity to the argument.
Four years ago, Limbaugh drew attention to himself by saying he hoped President Obama would fail. It’s entirely possible that again, on the occasion of the President’s inauguration, Limbaugh would rather have the topic of conversation be himself.
If that is to be the case, then let it be an honest discussion. Limbaugh’s audience – heavily Republican – skews older, white, and male. Often mistaken as the voice of the Republican Party, Limbaugh’s audience demonstrates the demographic problem the Republicans face.
Republicans are having difficulty attracting non-white voters and are having increasing problems attracting votes from women. Part of a much needed attempt to broaden the party’s appeal would be to have leaders openly reject this line of ridiculous rhetoric. That, on this day of great significance, would demonstrate additional progress.