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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

Republicans consider a more prominent MLK presence at state Capitol

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An oil portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. was brought to the state Capitol in 1974, by then-Gov. Jimmy Carter. AJC file

The idea hasn’t progressed far enough for anyone to put his or her name to it in public, but Republicans in the state Capitol are deep into discussions over whether to take a highly symbolic step toward diversifying their party in a rapidly changing state: Giving Martin Luther King Jr. a more prominent place of honor on the Capitol grounds.

One thought is a statue. Legislation to that end has already been introduced by state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, and could be recast as a GOP-led effort.

Another possibility: Putting King’s name on a new park adjacent to the Capitol that will soon be under construction. There would be some poetic justice in this – the park is intended as the designated area for protests that now clog the building’s front steps.

Forty-five years after the assassination of the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace prize recipient, King’s physical presence at the Capitol is limited to an oil portrait, flanked by a biographical display.

While going bigger might seem innocuous to many, Republican recognition of King would be a significant move for a party that came to power in 2002, in part, on the strength of protest votes over the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.

It would also amount to a symbolic – and highly public — admission that Georgia’s voter demographics are rapidly changing, and that GOP outreach to minorities is essential to the party’s long-term future.

Last year, at the state GOP convention in Athens, Gov. Nathan Deal warned an overwhelming pale audience that 56 percent of Georgia public school students are nonwhite. “If we do not recognize that, and if we don’t reach out to them, then shame on us,” he said.

On Monday, the governor will be speaking from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as pastor. Deal is running for re-election, and is guaranteed a well-financed Democratic opponent in November. In fact, state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, will be in the audience.

Should Deal give a mention to the GOP deliberations over an enhanced King presence at the Capitol, underway in both the House and Senate, it would only be appropriate. The governor himself sparked the discussions – perhaps unintentionally — with his decision last year to remove a statue of Tom Watson from the Capitol’s entrance. Watson was a U.S. senator famous for his bigoted diatribes in the early 20th century.

But even if Deal does raise the topic, it’s unlikely to be his only talking point aimed at African-American voters. Look for the governor to discuss his efforts at reducing the number of non-violent criminals warehoused in Georgia prisons, and giving inmates more job training to increase the chances they don’t return.

DeKalb County is the state’s largest source of black voters. Next week, it’s possible that the DeKalb school system will escape the probation levied by its accrediting agency. That will permit the governor to argue that his intervention – which resulted in the removal of a majority of school board members – was a boon to the community.

While Deal may be practicing what he preached in Athens last year, changing the demographic footprint of the GOP is no easy task. A King memorial at the Capitol would be an important step, but it can’t be the last. It takes practice.

On Thursday, Deal paid a formal visit to the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents another demographic Republicans must penetrate to survive. The governor complimented the group on its attitude toward education.

“In many communities, there are very few parents who will actively participate in school organizations. My experience has been that, in the Hispanic community, that is quite the opposite,” he said.

The governor didn’t mention – couldn’t mention — the harsh dialogue that has surrounded past Capitol debates over illegal immigration. Neither did House Speaker David Ralston, who also attended.

But Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was sandwiched in between the two state officials. He raised the topic for them. “I look forward to being part of a state with a changing tide, that understands immigrants aren’t people who need to be bashed or criticized,” Reed said.

The mayor didn’t intend his remarks to be a lesson in how to speak to minorities. But that’s what it was.

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