The GOP presidential candidates had every right to hold a debate in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Day, Jr. Day this week, but maybe, out of a sense of self-preservation, they should have thought twice about the timing. What could have been an opportunity for the candidates to express their support for the myriad advances of the Civil Rights movement and to address the real challenges that remain instead turned into a mess of racially-charged attacks on African Americans, immigrants and the poor.
The fact that the disgraceful show took place on a day dedicated to celebrating the Civil Rights movement threw into sharp relief the narrow cultural corner into which the GOP has painted itself.
The trouble for the GOP's civil rights celebrations started early in the day. Mitt Romney spent the day campaigning in South Carolina with Kris Kobach , the prominent anti-immigrant activist who, after a stint at a nativist hate group, so-called "FAIR", helped write draconian anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama. Romney has praised Kobach's record, calling him "a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country." (Romney's choice of company should perhaps come as no surprise. Another prominent endorser who now heads the candidate's legal policy team, former Judge Robert Bork, has said the Civil Rights Act was built on "a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.")
Meanwhile, the leaders of the South Carolina GOP, including Gov. Nikki Haley, had lunch with right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton , who "led the crowd through a timeline demonstrating the role Democrats of the day played in perpetuating the existence of slavery in the United States." Telling a selective history of American racism is something of a specialty for Barton, a former Texas GOP operative. In his video "Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White," Barton attempts to tie the modern Democratic party to slavery, lynching and the Ku Klux Klan - while conveniently ignoring the GOP's "southern strategy" and the party realignment spurred by the Civil Rights movement, which led to many of the Democrats that he referred to becoming Republican. One can only imagine the dubious history lesson the governor and her allies were treated to before moving on to watch the night's debate.
But the GOP's offensive daytime holiday activities could not match the evening's event. Texas Gov. Rick Perry started things off by dusting off the racially charged rhetoric of the segregated south to attack the Voting Rights Act . Under the act, the Justice Department has the power to review voting law changes in states with a history of disenfranchising minorities. Perry called the DOJ's review of Texas' voter ID law an "assault" and said the rejection of a similar law in South Carolina, the home of Fort Sumter, had led the state to be "at war with the federal government." He was met with loud cheers from the audience and a big smile from Gov. Haley.
Never to be outdone, former House speaker Newt Gingrich stepped up the attack on African Americans. Asked by moderator Juan Williams about his previous dubbing of President Obama as the "food stamp president" and his insistence that he would "talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps," Gingrich dug in his heels , to the delight of the audience. "Can't you see that this is viewed, at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?" asked Williams. "No, I don't see that," Gingrich replied, to roaring applause, before repeating his call for low-income children to be put to work as janitors in their schools.
And those were just the lowlights. Romney, in response to a trick question from Rick Santorum, declared his opposition to extending voting rights to convicted felons, an issue that disproportionately affects the African American community. Later, he repeated his promise to veto the DREAM Act, which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to build meaningful lives in the United States.
I can't presume to know what Dr. King would think of the way the GOP presidential candidates celebrated his birthday, but I can't imagine he would have enjoyed the party. Almost fifty years after the March on Washington, the leaders of a major political party are trying to curb voting rights, drinking in revisionist American history, and shamelessly exploiting racial tensions for political gain.
Martin Luther King Day isn't just a celebration of the great strides made by a previous generation -- it's a call to action for those who want to preserve and protect the values that Dr. King preached. The spectacle in South Carolina was a powerful reminder that despite how far we have come, we have a long way to go to realize Dr. King's dream.