McCain Tries To Steal the Bloody Shirt of a Civil Rights Hero

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Did John McCain travel all the way to Selma, Alabama, today so he could bask in the glory of a civil rights hero with whom he has no connection and who endorsed Barack Obama? Apparently so. As I noted elsewhere:

Speaking at the site of a critical civil rights clash, McCain described in detail that turning point in America’s history:

Forty-three years ago, an army of more than five hundred marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; an army that brought with them no weapons, which intended no destruction; that sought to conquer no people or land.

He went on to cite, in much detail, the heroic actions of John Lewis, who led that protest and who today is a Democratic congressman supporting Obama:

At the head of the column, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, tie and tan raincoat, marched a twenty-five year old son of Alabama sharecroppers, John Lewis. They had planned to march from Selma to Montgomery, but they knew they would never reach there…..

On the other side of the bridge, row upon row of state troopers in blue uniforms and white helmets, many on horseback, prepared to charge and stop with violence the peaceful army, intent only on conquering injustice. John Lewis took the first blow, a baton thrust to the stomach that shoved him back on the marchers behind him. He took the second blow, too, a hard swung club to his head, leaving a permanent scar where it struck. Blood poured from the wound, darkening his raincoat. He tried to struggle to his feet, and then collapsed unconscious, his skull fractured.

McCain went on to note that millions of Americans “watched brave John Lewis fall.” He referred to Lewis and his comrades as “the best kind of patriots.” He quoted Lewis. (“When I care about something, I’m prepared to take the long, hard road.”) He cited Lewis’ adherence to Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of the “beloved community.”

McCain said all this to make a political point: he would be “traveling to places in America that aren’t enjoying the prosperity many other parts of America enjoy” and would be listening to those Americans. You know, he would be a compassionate conservative.

It was odd: McCain wrapping himself in the bloody shirt of John Lewis. Especially since McCain is hardly recognized as a leader in the fight for civil rights. In fact, in 1983, he was one of 77 Republican House members to vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. This was more a speech about John Lewis than John McCain. And Lewis is a high-profile Obama supporter.

Lewis was surprised by the speech. But he took the high road, issuing a statement that he was “gratified that Sen. John McCain would take the opportunity to recognize what happened 43 years ago on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Bloody Sunday was a turning point in the struggle for voting rights and equal justice in America.” So the obvious point has to be left to others to state: McCain was expropriating someone else’s heroism.

During his talk, McCain hailed “free markets” and small government, neglecting to mention that the goal of Lewis’ nonviolent army in Selma was to enhance the power of the federal government so it could end racial discrimination. McCain also said that as part of his campaign he would be “going to places where they are still fighting for change; to make us a better country. I am going to meet and learn from patriots.” Maybe he can learn from these encounters that he ought to be selling his own efforts to bolster civil rights and social justice in the United States (if he has any to boast of), not exploiting those of others.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest