- Jeffrey Beall, via Wikimedia Commons
- Rep. Lori Saine sounded crazy.
By rule, only two members of the House could be prime sponsors. Two black members had signed up to be prime sponsors. Saine decided this was racist and an affront to King’s inclusivity — the subject of her four-minute speech, and the focus of her wrong-headed tribute to King. Someone, she had heard, had told Rep. Perry Buck she was being denied because of her “heritage.” No one was quite sure who said the H-word or if anyone said it or in what context, if said, it was made.
Sincere ignorance? Conscientious stupidity?
Oh, it’s worse than that. Before Saine got around to heritage, she took the floor to speak about how whites and blacks, following Reconstruction, were lynched in nearly equal numbers. Jaws must have dropped. She then said, in what amounts to the Republican version of victimhood in America, that those lynched, black and white, were hanged “for the crime of being Republican.”
I swear to God. Here’s the clip (tinyurl.com/LSaine-MLK). It’s those quotes — for their sheer lack of context, for their appalling arithmetic, for their historical illiteracy, for their attempt to equate radical Republicans like, say, Thaddeus Stevens with modern-day Republicans like, say, Lori Saine — that have grabbed the headlines, even as Republican House leaders hide in their offices without making any comment.
It’s as if Billie Holiday’s haunting “Strange Fruit” spoke of “Republican bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” It’s as if Emmett Till were lynched for being a member of the Young Republicans. It’s as if Jim Crow laws didn’t allow Everett Dirksen to play checkers with a Democrat in a public square. It’s as if the Little Rock Nine weren’t being taunted and harassed and threatened by white people. It’s as if it was a mixed congregation — white and black Republicans — at the Birmingham church where the four little girls were blown up.
During Reconstruction, Northern whites were killed. But as I’m sure everyone but Saine must know, lynching was terrorism practiced by the KKK and others against blacks, mostly in the Jim Crow South. Martin Luther King, I’m sure, never said there were very fine people on both sides.
But here’s Saine’s money quote (directed at the black caucus): “My colleagues, how can you redeem your marginalized voice by marginalizing ours? Our march towards justice is not over when a colleague is barred from introducing a resolution on this floor because of the color of her skin. Our march of justice is not over when a member of this body who represents all races, creeds and religions is told that Martin Luther King does not represent her heritage.”
Those in the black caucus had, at first, no idea what she was talking about. Saine and the “barred” colleague were both among dozens of co-sponsors. This was a day for at least a pretense of unity, a day when it would be particularly ignorant and hurtful to say that blacks and whites lost their lives in equal measure because they were Republicans.
Does Saine think that King would be marching alongside Donald Trump? Mike Pence must have thought so when he suggested that Trump, like King, was trying to bring people together in his bid to end the government shutdown.
Does that offend you? I could do a whole speech about that and about the co-opting of King, who was a nonviolent warrior (but very much a warrior) for justice, who said at the Berlin Wall that there were God’s children on both sides of the wall, who spoke out against the Vietnam War when it wasn’t popular to do so, who was assassinated while working with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, who feared that he would be killed for his beliefs and yet marched on, for poor people, for the victimized and to end racial injustice.
I wonder what he would think of this world, where, for many, so-called reverse racism is the real racism. Where just talking about racism will almost certainly lead to someone calling you a racist. In King’s time, they settled for calling him a communist and, of course, an outside agitator. And the conservative movement, after his death, after many Republicans had fought against the idea of a King holiday, has now adopted the content-of-his-character, not-color-of-his-skin quote to suggest that King was colorblind, that race wasn’t the issue, but justice.
Every year, the same politicians whom King would have fought try to co-opt King’s message by pretending it is something else: pretending that King would not have approved of Black Lives Matter, pretending that King — whose disapproval ratings in 1966, after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had passed, were at 63 percent — was beloved by all. Pretending that J. Edgar Hoover had not wiretapped King, that the FBI had not sent King a letter suggesting he kill himself.
Meanwhile, in the days after Saine’s controversial remarks hit, the Greeley Tribune wrote that she “double[d] down” on them. The Tribune quoted exchanges between Saine and right-wing radio host Jimmy Lakey who, during the interview, several times referred to Jared Polis as “our gay, Jewish governor.”
From that exchange:
“There were people of both races that made sacrifices? They don’t have a corner on this market?” Lakey said.
“That’s correct,” Saine said, adding that she’s not being hanged or killed, but she has received negative emails.
“I know MLK would not want us to go backward into more segregation,” Saine said. “He got on the mountaintop for all of us — children of all races. I think this is going to ricochet further than Dems realize.”
So, the fact that Buck, for example, had to settle for being a co-sponsor in a resolution honoring King is the segregation that King abhorred? Colorado Independent reporter Alex Burness reached Buck, who told him that another representative, whom she wouldn’t identify, was the one who told her she was denied prime sponsorship because “it wasn’t my heritage.”
She then concluded: “It is what it is. There are some that are very proud of what they say is their heritage. I think Martin Luther King was about unity. I don’t think he’s about race.”
That King’s life wasn’t about race, or fighting racial injustice, is certainly an original take. We should end there. Because, beyond sincere ignorance, what else is there to say?
This article originally appeared in The Colorado Independent.