In honor of Martin Luther King Day, the PBS Newshour rebroadcast a segment originally shown at this time last year in which school children read Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It was, as you might expect, both a charming and moving exercise. As I listened, however, I was suddenly struck by the specific phraseology in one of the refrains where King had begun to develop the variations on the “I have a dream” theme, especially the words I have bolded below:
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Let’s see – where I have I heard folks talking about “nullification” before. Could it have been the Tea Party – those folks who pretend to be so outraged when anyone points out that there are often hints of petty racism in their rhetoric? Could it have “dripped” from the lips of some of our own Missouri legislators – Jane Cunningham and Jim Lembke perhaps?
Nullification is a constitutional theory, based on a questionable interpretation of the 10th amendment, that holds that individual states can abrogate federal law; in its most extreme form, it stipulates that states are voluntary participants in the federal union and can withdraw their allegiance as they desire. It formed the theoretical basis for the Confederate secession and should have been laid to rest by the civil war. According to the Constitutional Accountablility Center:
… the tactic was most aggressively advocated for in the 1820s and ’30s by pro-slavery politician John C. Calhoun (who started the short-lived Nullifier Party), extended by the Confederate secessionists in the 1850s and ’60s, and then reinvigorated by segregationists in the 1950s and ’60s.
There you have it – a theory utilized by slaveholders and bigots.
But, you say, aren’t Tea Partiers and their representatives like Cunningham and Lembke using nullification to protest laws like Obamacare that affect all races? Indeed. But isn’t it interesting that the Tea Party grew out of opposition to a mild, centrist health care reform law that would bring millions of uninsured into the health care fold, while helping slow increases in health care costs overall. Didn’t you find the violence of the opposition surprising? Don’t you – at least secretly – suspect that the general rage might have had something to do with the fact that the law in question is the signal achievement of America’s first black president?
And, of course, there’s the fact that many on the right are convinced that big government programs benefit brown people at the expense of whites. Just a few days ago, in fact, one of the GOP presidential contenders let the cat out of the bag once again. Rick Santorum, speaking on the topic of welfare in Iowa declared that:
I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.
This in spite of the fact that only 9% of food stamp recipients in Iowa are black, or that most welfare recipients in the U.S. are white.
So was Mr. Santorum revealing his own racism, or pandering to what a 2010 survey described as the “racial resentment” of his Tea Party leaning audience? Actually, I ‘m not sure it makes much difference. What the revival of nullification talk tells us, among many other things, is that we still have a way to go before Martin Luther King’s vision of the peaceable kingdom is fully realized.