Fifty years after their instrumental role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King were posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on Tuesday.
The presentation of the medal for the Kings — considered the foremost leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights movement that won black Americans equal voting rights and fought to free them from institutional segregation in the Jim Crow South – comes a year after Congress gave the honor to the “Four Little Girls” killed in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, a pivotal moment in the movement.
“We gather here in the Capitol to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his beloved wife, Coretta Scott King, one of the most distinguished and admired husband and wife teams of the 21st century,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), himself a leader in the Civil Rights movement. “Often history remembers speeches of facts and figures, but I cannot forget their love. From their union came an enduring strength that carried many of us through the darkest days of the movement.”
Other Civil Rights-era figures who have been honored with the Congressional Gold Medal include Rosa Parks (1999), who became the face of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott when she refused to leave her seat and move to the back of the bus, a section reserved for blacks, and Dorothy Height (2004), one of the most prominent women of the movement, who organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” a dialogue series in which northern women traveled to southern cities to work to foster harmony during the contentious civil rights years.
The Kings’ medal ceremony also comes a year after the Supreme Court struck down a major component of the Voting Rights Act, undermining the “pre-clearance” provision that many considered the law’s most crucial component.
The Shelby v. Holder decision last year stalled the requirement that nine states — each with histories of racially discriminatory actions to keep minorities from voting — must submit any change to voting procedures to the Department of Justice. The court ruled that the determination of which states must abide by the “pre-clearance provision” was unconstitutional, which meant Congress must pass new legislation before it could be enforced again.
“In a larger sense, today’s ceremony is not one of celebration but of mourning,” Martin Luther King III, the Kings’ oldest son, wrote in an op-ed published in The Hill on Tuesday. “Mourning because, as we approach another anniversary, that of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we are moving backward rather than forward in protecting our sacred right to vote and engaging more citizens in the voting process.”
Several Democrats who spoke at the ceremony called for the passage of legislation this year to update the Voting Rights Act and reinstall the pre-clearance provision. “We must pass the bipartisan Voting Rights Act in this Congress,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared, prompting applause.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Carl Levin (D-Mich) also called for Congressional action on the Voting Rights Act, prompting applause — including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“As Dr. King said: The time is always right to do what is right,” Fudge said. “It is only right that we fulfill the promise of the Civil Rights Act and by ensuring every American’s right to vote is protected.”
Boehner and McConnell both gave personal speeches about their own experiences with the Civil Rights movement. Boehner declared that the Civil Rights Act was possibly “the most consequential piece of legislation” ever passed. McConnell spoke about Republicans’ roll in the movement and decried the “cancer of intolerance” that was the South during Jim Crow and segregation.
The Kings were initially awarded the medal in 2004, but Coretta Scott King passed away before she could receive the medal. Congress then needed to re-pass legislation so that the physical medal could be given to the Smithsonian.
“We are deeply honored that my father and mother, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, are being given this award in recognition of their tireless and sacrificial leadership to advance freedom and justice through nonviolence in our nation,” said Bernice A. King, the Kings’ youngest child, in a statement released after the award was announced. “It is fitting that the award will be presented by the U.S. Congress as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was a cornerstone reform on America’s journey to racial justice.”