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Editorial: Why MLK Day – and the justice he fought for –still matters

In considering why it matters so much that we pause tomorrow to honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., it is instructive to recall the yesterday in which he, among others, compelled the nation to confront its ugly ways on race.

This July 2 will mark the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which belatedly but unmistakably prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin throughout the land.

This amounted to a declaration not of American independence but of American values. It was bitterly opposed by many in the South, where its disruptive effects were most far-reaching, and their strident voices echoed even across New Hampshire’s prodigious hilltops.

The decisive moment came not in July but in the middle of June, in the U.S. Senate, where southern senators had long blocked action on civil rights. One of New Hampshire’s senators, Democrat Thomas McIntyre, was a firm civil rights supporter, and he was joined by his Republican colleague, Norris Cotton, in bringing an end to a filibuster by that southern minority and thus making a vote on the bill – and its eventual passage – a certainty.

But when the time came to vote on the bill itself, Cotton voted no.

In a statement the day before, Cotton said he supported an end to discrimination “with all my heart.” But the act, he said, represented “the triumph of the false principle that the citizen is the servant, not the master of his government.”

Of particular concern, he said, was a provision in the law that extended the ban on discrimination into small businesses.

“The men and women struggling in this competitive age to maintain themselves and furnish employment in the little concerns along the Main Streets of America are already subjected to enough tax burden and federal harassments without having a federal bureaucracy interfere with their choice of associates and employees,” he said.

Cotton’s statement was reported in full in the state’s largest newspaper, the Union Leader, and supported with vigor in an accompanying front-page editorial by the paper’s vituperative publisher, William Loeb.

The day before, the newspaper had carried a full-page advertisement from the Coordinating Committee for Fundamental American Freedoms – William Loeb, chairman. The ad warned that, by forcing civil rights on their constituency of “Ethnic Groups,” meaning white immigrants, “the Democrats have torn loose their political backbone.”

On the letters page appeared this insight from Lamar Kemp, president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Miss.: “The finest and happiest group of Negroes in the U.S. is found here in the South, at least they were happy before the Communist agitators came.”

In contrast to the abundant coverage in the Union Leader, it must be acknowledged that the Monitor offered its readers thin soup: a selection of wire stories, modestly played, with nothing in the way of editorial or community commentary. We like to think we’d do better today.

So too, we would hope, for our elected leaders.

Presumably few people would argue now that racial discrimination is acceptable in any workplace or institution, large or small. For that progress, we owe as much to Martin Luther King Jr. as to anyone.

But as we pause to reflect on that tomorrow, may we also consider the extent to which bigotry persists in our country – as does legalized bias, particularly as it relates to gay Americans.

Addressing discrimination, then as now, is not a matter of overreach, but a matter of justice.

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