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Fifty Years After King’s Dream Speech, Nullification Keeps on Marching

Each time I read or hear Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a different piece leaps out at me. Today, as we come to the fiftieth anniversary of that speech, it’s this:

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.

The language of nullification — the thought that state laws can trump federal laws — is still a part of our national lexicon, despite the fact that the Nullifiers lost the Civil War. Indeed, here in Missouri, it’s become a very large part of the state political conversation.

Last year the big emphasis of the nullification crowd in Missouri was Obamacare. In the spring, the Missouri House passed HB1534, whose official description [pdf] proudly declares its love of nullification:

This bill declares that the General Assembly finds the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed by President Obama exceeds the powers granted to Congress under the United States Constitution. Therefore, it is not law and is altogether void and of no force. It is the General Assembly’s duty to enact any measure necessary to prevent its enforcement within this state.

No public officer or employee of this state has any authority to enforce or attempt to enforce any aspect of the act. Any United States official, agent, or employee who undertakes any action within this state that enforces or attempts to enforce the act in violation of these provisions will be guilty of a class A misdemeanor. Any person who has been subject to any action attempting to enforce the act within this state will have a private cause of action for declaratory judgment and damages against any person violating these provisions.

The US constitution has a mechanism for declaring federal laws unconstitutional, and this bill isn’t a part of it. Saner heads in the Missouri Senate (and I use “saner” cautiously) derailed the bill, but replaced with a bill asking state voters to prohibit the state from setting up an insurance exchange. This substitute became law, and the statewide ballot issue [pdf] passed 62-38% last November

But the Nullifiers in Missouri were not to be denied, and Nullification went marching on . . .

In January, a group of far-right wing state legislators put forward a bill that would make it a crime for a federal law enforcement officer to enforce any new federal gun laws, or for anyone to publish information that identifies gun owners. The bill passed the GOP-dominated legislature in the early summer, democratic Governor Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, and now the push is on to override the veto. By all accounts, it looks as if the override will be successful, as (1) the GOP has a veto-proof majority if everyone sticks together, and (2) enough Dems in rural areas are scared of voting against any pro-gun bill and they don’t think it will be upheld in court anyway, so “why fight it?” is their fallback position.

“We love our guns and we love hunting. It’s not worth the fight for me to vote against it,” said Rep. T.J. McKenna, D-Festus. But, he added, “the bill is completely unconstitutional, so the courts are going to have to throw it out.”

The legislation would make it a misdemeanor for federal agents to attempt to enforce any federal gun regulations that “infringe on the people’s right to keep and bear arms.” The same criminal charges would apply to journalists who publish any identifying information about gun owners. The charge would be punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

[That last section would surely change the sports and outdoor pages of state newspapers, where all the hunting news would have to be eliminated. No heartwarming “12 year old Jimmy got his first buck on the opening day of deer season while hunting with his dad, grandpa, and great grandpa” stories any more. But I digress.]

Despite most of the recent media coverage of the anniversary of King’s famous Dream Speech, the speech wasn’t all about race. It was about being one nation. It was about being a nation with one set of laws that apply equally to all, one set of responsibilities that are required of everyone, and one set of principles that guides us all. From the opening:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.

And the Nullifiers continue to say “no.” Their “I’ve got mine — to hell with everyone else” attitude is still alive and kicking. That’s the attitude that underlies racial discrimination, and that’s the attitude that King and the other marchers fought non-violently to bring down.

Jason Hancock and Brad Cooper of the KC Star lay out the current struggle quite nicely:

[Nullification is] an idea that was embraced most passionately in the run up to the Civil War by Confederate secessionists, and reclaimed by segregationists in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s once again gaining popularity with the election and re-election of President Barack Obama and, in rebellious counterpoint, the rise of the tea party.

“This is really a reaction over Obama … a kind of soft secession,” said Burdett Loomis, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. “Texas isn’t going to secede. Kansas isn’t going to secede. Missouri isn’t going to secede.”

But, Loomis said, many legislators refuse the notion that when the federal government makes a law “it should be enforced.”

Fifty years after King’s speech and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the ghosts of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and the rest of the Nullifiers keep trying to refight the Civil War. They were wrong in 1863, they were wrong in 1963, and they keep being wrong today.

Postscript: In an attempt to play the “but both sides do it” game, some point to medical marijuana laws passed in various states, pushed and enacted by those on the political left. The difference between these efforts and the rightwing nullification laws is that the medical marijuana laws do not try to nullify federal law, but simply amend state laws to say the state does not consider possession and use of medical marijuana to be a violation of state law. That’s *not* nullification. The politicians pushing for medical marijuana may hope that the federal government would follow their lead, but they aren’t claiming “our state law trumps federal law”.


photo h/t to Alves Family for the photo of the Jefferson Memorial as seen from behind the sculpture of MLK at his memorial across the Tidal Basin. When you stand at the Jefferson Memorial and look back, you see not only the MLK memorial, but the Lincoln memorial standing behind it.


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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.