At a joint MLK Day appearance Monday morning, presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry put aside politics momentarily to honor the legacy of the late civil rights icon, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hundreds of black and white Americans filled the Canal Street Recreation Center in Myrtle Beach for a MLK Day celebration, where they heard brief remarks from both men, plus a stemwinder from black GOP congressman Tim Scott of Charleston.
Gingrich took a solemn and reverential tone in his brief remarks. He pointed with pride to the fact that the very first bill he co-sponsored as a freshman congressman in 1979 was a bill to create a federal MLK holiday.
"As a Georgian, I felt a particular obligation to stand up and say this was the right thing to do," Gingrich said of King, a fellow Georgian. "At that time it was a fairly unusual position for a southern Republican."
It would take until 1983 before MLK Day became an official federal holiday. It took until 2000 for the state of South Carolina to make it an official state holiday, becoming the last state in the United States to recognize it as a paid holiday for all state employees.
"I think for the younger people who are here, it's a little hard to imagine how dramatically things have changed, how much courage it took for people like Dr. King, for people like [former Georgia congressman and civil rights leader] John Lewis, and for people like [former civil rights leader and U.S. Ambassador] Andrew Young" added Gingrich, who noted growing up an Army brat from Pennsylvania who moved to Georgia when segregation was still legal.
Regarding King, "he was a person who believed with all of his heart, for all of his life, and was totally committed to the cause of freedom for all human beings," Gingrich said.
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In his brief remarks, targeted largely to the youngsters in the audience, Perry said, "[King] was assaulted, he was jailed, he was murdered, but he was never silenced…. All of us need to be engaged in the public arenas, speaking about the values that are important to us. Martin Luther King did that every day. You're going to have an opportunity to make a difference in life."
Not to be outdone by Gingrich, Perry pointed with pride to the fact that he placed the first African American in Texas history on the state's Supreme Court. Perry appointed Wallace Jefferson to the bench in 2001 to fill a vacancy. Jefferson subsequently won election to the court the following year. In 2004, Perry promoted him to Chief Justice. In 2006, Jefferson earned more votes than any other candidate for state office.
"Jefferson's ancestor, his great-great grandfather was sold on a courthouse steps in the 1850s," Perry said. "This was a descendant of slaves who today walks up the highest courthouse in the state of Texas. That is the power of Martin Luther King."