WASHINGTON – 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 20st century,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., also 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.”
“The Civil Rights Act transformed our country,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “It made America more American.”
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, the 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, eliminating the “pre-clearance” provision that many considered the law’s most crucial component.
The Shelby v. Holder decision last year ended 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 Justice Department. 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 living child, wrote in an op-ed published in the newspaper 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,” Pelosi declared, prompting applause.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., also called for congressional action on the Voting Rights Act, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The Congressional Gold Medal is considered the country’s “highest expression of national appreciation” for distinguished achievements of all sorts. It is awarded to individuals, institutions and sometimes even events.