By Lee A. Daniels
There they go again! Just as the Republican Party is poised to take control of Congress, a key official’s actions and words remind us – just in time for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday – that it remains implacably hostile to what King represented and what the holiday stands for.
Louisiana blogger Lamar White Jr.’s revealing last week that Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), now the third-ranking officer in the GOP’s House majority leadership structure, spoke at a White-supremacist convention in 2002 while a state representative, set off the by now well-practiced minuet of yet another prominent conservative trying to distance himself or herself from having associated with bigots.
First, Scalise through a spokesperson acknowledged that he had spoken to the group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO, but said he had had no inkling of their anti- Black, -Hispanic and –Jewish views. No transcript or otherwise hard evidence of what Scalise said then has surfaced to contradict – or support – his assertion that he spoke only of general public-policy matters.
However, Scalise’s claim of ignorance about EURO produced widespread skepticism, even among some conservatives, given that he spoke to the group during its two-day convention at a hotel in his own district and that its racist views had been discussed in several recent local news articles.
EURO, which had been founded two years earlier by David Duke, the notorious racist and former Louisiana state legislator, had links to several other similar Southern-based racist groups, although, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks U.S. hate groups, it was and is largely “a paper tiger, serving primarily as a vehicle to publicize Duke’s writing and sell his books.”
Nonetheless, like its confederates among hate groups, it was a poster-board for stomach-churning racist invective. For example, one post from 2007 denounced the increasingly multiracial character of today’s Germany, declaring, “The beautiful Germany of the 1930s with blonde children happily running through the streets has been replaced by a multi-racial cesspool. Out of work Africans can be seen shuffling along the same streets which used to be clean and safe in the days of [Hitler’s Nazi Party].”
The pushback forced Scalise to quickly issue another statement declaring that his appearance at the event was “a mistake in judgment,” caused by the organizational disarray of his scheduling team and this time he emphatically denied approving of EURO’s views. “I didn’t know who all of these groups were and I detest any kind of hate group,” Scalise told the New Orleans-based NOLA.com/Times-Picayune website. “For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous.”
By then, prominent Republicans in Congress had begun speaking up in his defense, and Rep. Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, Louisiana’s only Black Democratic Congressman, vouched for Scalise’s tolerance and integrity.
By the end of the week, those elements combined to take the steam out of the story. After all, one might also say, given the GOP’s voluminous recent record of bigoted comments and actions against Blacks and Hispanics, gays and lesbians, undocumented immigrants, and women, and its many racist references to President Obama, what’s “new” about a decade-and-more-old story of a Deep-South Republican’s trolling for votes among the nation’s most racist elements?
But what caught my attention most about this story was the largely ignored fact that in 1999 and again in 2004 Steve Scalise as a state representative was one of a very few Louisiana state legislators to vote against establishing a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
On those occasions, only three and six Louisiana state legislators, respectively, voted against those proposals. Why at the opening of the 21st century, after the King national holiday had been celebrated for 15 years, would any public official be against establishing an official state holiday? Doesn’t that call for an explanation? Are those votes the actions of someone who’s not a bigot? Are they the actions of someone who wouldn’t know they were at a White-supremacist conference despite being, literally, in the middle of it?
In all the hullabaloo about Scalise’s speaking before the EURO group, his anti-King votes have been overlooked. But don’t those votes also raise a question about the content of Steve Scalise’s character? Perhaps this month he’ll find a respectable forum and give a speech about that.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent (2014), published by Zed Books.