The highest-ranking African-American lawmaker said Tuesday that Americans must decide whether to fight against attempts to undermine the civil rights progress that Martin Luther King Jr. helped achieve.
Rep. James Clyburn, House Assistant Democratic leader, said he met King many times when the South Carolinian was helping to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participating in its protests against injustice in the Jim Crow South.
"Dr. King's work and writings had a major effect on my life and led me toward public service as a pathway to social justice in this country," Clyburn said. "In particular, I consider Dr. King's 'Letter from the Birmingham City Jail' second only to the Bible as insightful and influential writings."
In that letter, King responded to eight white ministers who'd written him to say that the civil rights movement was a disruptive force and to urge him to wait for the courts to resolve the problems of segregation and racial injustice.
In his letter, King penned one of his most famous phrases: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." He accepted the ministers' portrayal of the civil rights movement as extreme, said Jesus was an extremist and asked, "Will we be extremists for hate or for love?"
Clyburn, 73, noted that King would have just turned 85 had he not been assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn.
Clyburn translated the questions King asked from the Birmingham jail into questions for Americans today.
"So the question is -- what are you going to do with your time?" Clyburn said. "Are you making good use of your time or are you allowing people of ill will to turn back the clock against hard-won progress? As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I urge all citizens to reflect on Dr. King's words and resolve to use our time working for progress toward a more perfect union."
Clyburn was disappointed by the Supreme Court's divided ruling last June that overturned a key section of the Voting Rights Act, and he's now working with other lawmakers to restore the law in accordance with the high court decision.
Clyburn said last week that he and other black members of Congress will also work this year to protect the Affordable Card Act, Medicare and Medicaid, saying the longstanding programs for elderly and low-income Americans contributed to gains in the War on Poverty launched a half century ago by President Lyndon Johnson.
At a legal symposium on King's legacy, Clyburn was the keynote speaker last Thursday at the University of South Carolina Law School in Columbia, S.C.
Clyburn's daughter, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, is slated to speak Saturday on a day of remembrance for King at the University of South Carolina in Aiken.
In Charleston, S.C., Clyburn was on hand Sunday evening when retired S.C. Circuit Judge Richard Fields received the Harvey Gantt Triumph Award, an honor named after the former Charlotte, N.C., mayor.
"He is deserving of this award like no other person I know," Clyburn said.
Fields presented the Gantt award to Clyburn when the congressman received it in 1994.
Clyburn recently defended President Barack Obama against criticism from Robert Gates in the former Pentagon chief's new memoir.
Gates wrote that even during the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan, Obama didn't believe in his war strategy.
Clyburn recalled President Dwight Eisenhower's warning, in his White House farewell address, to be wary of the military-industrial complex.
"I think to have a healthy skepticism of the investments in war is something good to have," Clyburn told the Huffington Post.
McClatchy Washington Bureau