COLUMBIA, S.C. – Seeking to discredit criticism that he is racially insensitive, Rep. Joe Wilson on Tuesday cited his efforts as a state legislator to get Martin Luther King Jr. Day recognized as an official South Carolina state holiday.
“I revere the man. I think of him as a spiritual brother,” Wilson said. “It seemed only right that his birthday be recognized by the state and I worked with his family to make that happen.”
Wilson has come under attack from former President Jimmy Carter, among others, for yelling “You lie!” during President Obama’s recent speech on health care. Carter said that Wilson’s outburst was “based on racism.”
On May 2, 2000, South Carolina became the last state to make the late civil rights leader’s birthday an official state holiday. Wilson served in the state Senate then, though at the time he had begun his campaign for his current seat representing South Carolina in the U.S. Congress.
Prior to enactment of the 2000 legislation, state employees had the choice of celebrating Martin Luther King Day or one of three Confederate-related holidays. The legislation struck the birthdays of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865. However, in making King’s birthday an official state holiday, it also created another official state holiday on May 10 — Confederate Memorial Day.
Wilson’s claim that he spearheaded the effort to have King’s birthday recognized was treated with disbelief, and even laughter, by friends and critics alike. A friend of Wilson’s from his state legislature days said that it’s possible Wilson had confused his support for the two days. “Sure as hell he supported Confederate Memorial Day. As for MLK Day, I think his view was more, well, let’s just say it was a compromise.”
When asked for comment about Wilson’s claim, Martin Luther King III, son of King, said with incredulity, “Are you talking about the Joe Wilson that voted to keep the Confederate flag flying above the state house? The one who revered segregationist Strom Thurmond and said that Essie Mae Washington-Williams should have never come forth and said that she was his daughter? That yelled “You lie!” at the country’s first African-American president? Or are you talking about the one whose wife [Valerie Plame] is a spy? It doesn’t matter though, because I never met either, though if I ever met the former I might have to rethink the whole non-violence thing.”
Dexter King, another son of the civil rights icon, replied in an E-mail, “As you know, I am currently in litigation with my brother, Martin, and Bernice King over stewardship of my father’s estate. Nonetheless, I am in full agreement that Joe Wilson never did any sort of outreach to us. I reckon the only ‘brothers’ he has are those he got drunk with at his fraternity.”
King concluded, “By the way, I should remind you that if you choose to air or print my father’s ‘I Have a Dream” speech or engage in any other such unauthorized use of his image or writings we WILL sue. It’s copyrighted. Dexter, Bernice and I agree on that too.”
In fact, one of Wilson’s fraternity brothers from his undergraduate days at Washington and Lee said that suggestions that Wilson is racially insensitive were unmerited. “He was the only one in the Sigma Nu fraternity who wanted to hire a black guy to tend the bar,” said Jackson Horace Smithfield. “Of course, we could hire them for cheaper, so it may have been more a sign of his fiscal restraint even back then.”
Wilson’s claim of having worked with the King family to establish the state holiday is the second time in two weeks that he has been rebuffed. Last week, Wilson cited as evidence of a long friendship with Rep. Jim Clyburn, dean of the South Carolina delegation, his 1998 vote for Mignon Clyburn for state Public Service Commission. Clyburn, the Majority Whip, is the highest ranking African-American in the House and he represents an adjoining district. However, as pointed out by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, Wilson actually voted against Mignon Clyburn’s appointment.
When told of King’s children’s remarks that he had not worked with them to secure the holiday, Wilson said that honestly believed he had and that his memory must have failed him. “I will say that I have always given my congressional staff that day off,” Wilson said, ignoring or oblivious to to the fact that the day is a mandated federal holiday.
Wilson then began absentmindedly humming “Dixie,” the de facto anthem of the Confederacy, until he spotted an aide’s stricken face and changed to “We Shall Overcome.”
This article can also be found at thediscust.com