Out of all of the images of yesterday's events in Memphis that were broadcast in Britain, the most surprising for me, but also ironically the most heart-warming, was the sight of Republican nominee John McCain standing at the balcony where Dr King was killed and being shown around the museum. The fulsome praise which he heaped upon Dr King and the admiration for his legacy which he expressed was exemplary, and I imagine they took quite a bit of political courage from a man who, throughout most of his life, had not in his own words "even considered" the significance of the Civil Rights Movement, and had frequently in his career campaigned and voted against the institution of a National Martin Luther King Day, and also the establishment of that holiday in his state of Arizona.
How did Senator McCain come to this point of view? Well, I imagine that his early upbringing was typical of many white suburban Americans in the 40s, still in a time when segregation was considered by much of white America as an acceptable fact of life. In his own words in an interview, the Senator described further:
"I had not been involved in the issue. I had come from being in the military to running for Congress in a state that did not have a large African American population."
So for Senator McCain, other issues such as Cold War foreign policy and economics occupied his mind at that time. The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s did not inspire or interest him. By the 1960s, he would have been heavily involved in the military - which he describes as having been an equal-opportunities environment. Compared to the rest of America at that time, he would have been right (though it was far from a paradise), and I can understand why at the time he might then have thought that civil rights protest was unnecessary and divisive. It is an uninspiring story, and reveals a deep lack of empathy and ability for analysing social issues, a disturbing tendency to go along with the flow and follow the herd of opinion, to blame the victim of injustice for not being strong enough to sort out their own problems, but it fits with where many similar young white men might have been at that time.
After this, the Senator was a POW in Vietnam, and he has described how his torturers used events like protests and race riots to try to sap the morale of the prisoners, portraying a nation in turmoil. I can understand how this might emotionally turn the Senator against expressions of admiration for the Civil Rights Movement, as the effects of torture do not make it easy to judge and evaluate events gleaned from patchy scraps of news easy. It is a shame that he had not thought more deeply about the numerous images of the fight against racial injustice which he had been exposed to on televisions and simply walking around any American town before his capture.
However, from his entry into politics, Senator McCain had the means, advice and political duty to learn the truth. His record stands up to now as a sorry testament to his ability for self-reflection. It took him literally decades to abandon his trenchant position opposing Martin Luther King Day, and in the meantime, because he had political position, he was able to add his vote to preventing Arizona joining the rest of the Union in celebrating Dr King's life.
It seems that in the meantime, John McCain has grappled with how his experiences of imprisonment and the experience of racism in America both highlight injustice and indignity. I hope that his conversion is a heartfelt and a genuine one. To be sure that Senator McCain remembers, I have chosen a song from an old nemesis, Stevie Wonder, one of the originators of the idea of Martin Luther King Day, which will serve as a reminder.
Stevie Wonder - Big Brother (from Motown LP 'Talking Book STMA8007) 1972
For this post I read an interesting debate at the Chicago Tribune website.