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The Problem Is, He Never Said That: The Saga of the DOD MLK Day Speech

First Jeremy Scahill tweets, then Salon.com follows, then HuffingtonPost has a big front page story, all accusing the Defense Department’s General Counsel of giving a speech wherein he says that Martin Luther King, Jr. would be okaywith the various wars in which the U.S. is currently engaged.

The problem, though, is that is NOT what his speech said. Don’t take my word for it, read the speech for yourself, slowly. It is an insider’s history of the evolution of MLK written by a man, Jeh Johnson, who worked to bring this holiday about and whose family history is intertwined with Dr. King and his advocacy.

It’s upsetting to see a bunch of people who want to reduce a complicated flesh and blood man like Dr. King into some silhouette symbol without nuance, or subtlety.  I know, I know; it’s called “branding”.

However, the Dr. King of Jeh’s experience was not a symbol, he was was a real man, and the father of his friend of 35 years. Knowing the human being, Jeh makes the unremarkable statement that Dr. King would have realized that the world is a complicated place. The point of the speech is to lament that while Mrs. King was able to realize her dream of a holiday honoring her slain husband, Dr. King’s dream of a world at peace has not been realized.  . . .

Somehow, that got twisted into “Pentagon Official: King would support Iraq, Afghan Wars.” READ THE SPEECH, I dare you to find that in there.

And in all honesty, it’s not totally the fault of the people who jumped on this. For reasons unknown to me, instead of putting up the full text of the Johnson speech, DOD wrote an article that took quotes out of context and with a headline that was at best — ahem — misleading. For this, DOD deserves whatever scorn you care to lay on the department.

Go read the speech, and learn some things about Dr. King that maybe you never knew before.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have known, liked and admired Jeh Johnson for over 20 years, ever since our days on the seventh floor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office-SDNY. When I first saw the Scahill tweet, I knew there had to be some mistake, because the Jeh Johnson I know is simply not that big of a jerk. He’s not any kind of a jerk. Go read the speech.

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Cynthia Kouril

Cynthia Kouril

Cynthia Kouril is a former Special Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York under several different U.S. Attorneys, former counsel to the Inspector General for the N.Y.C. Department of Environmental Protection where she investigated threats to the New York City water supply and other environmental crimes, as well as public corruption and fraud against the government, former Examining Attorney at the N.Y.C. Department of Investigation and former Capital Construction Counsel at New York City Parks and Recreation.
She is now in private practice with a colleague whom she met while at the USA Attorney's Office. Ms. Kouril is a member of the Steering Committee, National Committeewoman and Regional Coordinator for the New York Democratic Lawyers Council, a member of the Program Committee of the Federal Bar Council and a member of the Election Law Committee at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. She is active in several other Bar Associations.
Most important of all, she is a soccer mom.

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