An obscure list has grown a little shorter this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Congress legislated a federal holiday for the civil rights hero in 1983, and since then, the number of sitting senators who voted against that measure has dropped to just two: Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Richard Shelby of Alabama (at the time, Shelby was a Democrat). Two senators dropped off the list over the last year: Orrin Hatch of Utah, who did not seek re-election, and John McCain of Arizona, who died in August. These days, it might seem shocking that anyone opposed the reverend, whose rhetoric and peaceful civil disobedience are examples of America at its best.
But in life, King was vilified as a rabble rouser. And even years after his murder, members of Congress stood and found reasons not to honor the famed leader. Their arguments were sometimes couched in concerns about King’s “radical” connections and the economic effects of a new day off — that extra holiday would be oh so expensive — but beneath it lurked the racism that has wounded the nation since its founding.
Public perception has changed about King. That evolution is a profoundly American act, too.
Some senators who voted against the holiday evolved personally, for one reason or another. Hatch eventually called it “one of the worst decisions” he made as a senator. McCain came to see his vote as a mistake, too, and eulogized King in Memphis on the 40th anniversary of his death. In 2004, Grassley co-sponsored legislation awarding a posthumous medal to MLK.
Surely King had imperfections like any mortal, but his best example is what we aspire to today.
People can change. Countries can, too. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice, as King liked to say. The new Congress has some admirable diversity. Overt racism in that body is less tolerated: See South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott blasting the repugnant comments of Iowa Rep. Steve King, who advocates for white supremacy. There is hope, but also much work to be done. The evolution must continue.