Gov. Nathan Deal pledged on Monday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. by putting his name on the statehouse grounds, in a move that was wrapped in political symbolism and a nod toward the state’s changing demographics.
“Not many states can boast a native son who has merited a national holiday. But we Georgians can,” Deal said at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was pastor. “That’s why this year working with the General Assembly I’m committed to finding an appropriate way to honor Dr. King on our Capitol Hill.”
King’s physical presence at the statehouse is now limited to an oil portrait that’s flanked by a biographical display. Deal did not say how King would be honored, but aides say he is considering options that include putting the Nobel Prize winner’s name on a statue at the statehouse or a park to be built across the street.
The governor’s decision comes amid a growing clamor to put King’s visage on the statehouse grounds. After Deal signed an order last year to remove a statue of Tom Watson, a segregationist U.S. Senator known for his attacks on blacks, several Democratic leaders pushed him to replace it with a statue of King.
The Republican governor is in a heated re-election campaign against two fellow Republicans and Democrat Jason Carter, whose bid relies on support from minorities who make up the brunt of his party’s strength here.
Before and after he took the podium, several impassioned speakers took not-so-subtle digs at his administration’s conservative policies. And after the service, state Sen. Vincent Fort and other Democrats scoffed at Deal’s announcement as a transparent election-year ploy.
“With all due respect, if the governor really wanted to do a tribute to Dr. King’s memory, he would expand Medicaid,” Fort said, invoking the governor’s opposition to a key tenet of President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul. “A statue can’t take you to the emergency room.”
Deal has supported new immigration restrictions and voting requirements that are unpopular with minority groups. He’s also chided his party to roll out the welcome mat to newcomers – “shame on us,” if not, he has said – mindful that the growing numbers of minority voters could end the GOP’s reign in Georgia.
The backbone of this appeal centers on a pivot toward some of his hallmark legislative achievements. He told the hundreds gathered at Ebenezer on Monday of the criminal justice overhaul he championed that aims to keep more low-level offenders out of prisons, which lock up a disproportionate number of blacks.
“These reforms aren’t just good for former inmates and their families. It’s good for everyone in this beautiful church, everyone in this city, everyone in this state,” Deal said. “We are not only saving lives, we are also saving tax dollars.”
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the final plan to honor King is yet to be determined.
“There will be many legislators with opinions on how best to honor Dr. King,” he said. “We want people to have their say.”