McFeely blog: A reminder that a North Dakota Republican once gave the worst MLK Day speech in history

Al Carlson’s rambling talk came to this conclusion: The purpose of MLK Day is to honor Confederate soldiers who died at the Battle of Gettysburg, and the reason we have MLK Day is Ronald Reagan’s courage.

House Majority Leader Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo. Tom Stromme /Bismarck Tribune file photo
House Majority Leader Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo. Tom Stromme /Bismarck Tribune file photo

Here's a column I wrote in 2017, pointing out that then-North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson was a history-ignorant, partisan clod who couldn't bring himself to praise Martin Luther King Jr.

Jan. 20, 2017

FARGO — North Dakota made some national headlines lately for its (mis)handling of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and silly legislative bills like the one defining all devices connected to the Internet as “pornographic vending machines.” It’s enough to make people in other parts of the nation believe North Dakota is run by a bunch of guys who don’t get out much. That might be a little harsh. Many of North Dakota’s leaders have lake cabins in Minnesota, so they're exposed to the outside world a little bit.

At least from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

North Dakota’s Majority Leader, Rep. Al Carlson of Fargo, is one of those bigwigs who has a cottage in Minnesota’s lake country. Unfortunately for Angry Al, it didn’t seem to help with his grasp of important national events. A tip of the cap to the blog for pointing out that on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Carlson gave perhaps the worst speech in history regarding the holiday honoring America’s greatest and best-known civil-rights leader.


Carlson’s rambling talk came to this conclusion: The purpose of MLK Day is to honor Confederate soldiers who died at the Battle of Gettysburg, and the reason we have MLK Day is Ronald Reagan’s courage. Somehow, Carlson manages to also pat the Legislature on the back for working on a federal holiday, quotes portions of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, tells stories from a vacation, works in a reference to the DAPL protests, quotes Reagan talking about King, somehow avoids saying one quote attributed to King and doesn’t mention the words “civil rights.”

Carlson’s disrespect of King is so stunning it’s hard to believe it occurred in 2017. It’s hard to believe it occurred in a state north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s hard to believe, period.

It’s coming from the most powerful politician in North Dakota.

As you know, we’re working today and a lot of our state employees and employees around the nation are not in honor of a date that was designated by President Reagan a number of years ago,” Carlson says.

Well, no. Monday was a federal holiday because Americans saw fit to honor the nation’s greatest civil-rights leader, one who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and whose efforts changed the course of U.S. history. King’s non-violent protests and influential speeches helped usher in the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that helped all citizens be protected from discrimination based on race, color, religion sex or national origin. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, made before an estimated 250,000 people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is one of the great oratories in American history.

Oh, and there’s this: King gave his life for his cause, dying by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

Even with King’s very human faults, that’s a pretty good resume.

Carlson ignored those details and focused instead on a family vacation he took to the Gettysburg battlefield last summer. It was there that a tour guide explained how Confederate soldiers kept advancing against the Union army despite overwhelming odds and how they were willing to die for their country and their cause. Carlson doesn’t mention that Confederate soldiers were fighting to break up the nation since the Confederacy was a collection of secessionist states trying to preserve slavery under the guise of “state’s rights.”


Carlson also didn’t mention that the Gettysburg Address was all about preserving the nation and moving forward with the ideal “that all men are created equal.” That’s why Lincoln specifically opened the address with the words “Four score and seven years ago,” referring to the date of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and not ratification of the Constitution (1787).

Lincoln’s words had nothing to do with the Confederacy. Just the opposite. He was dedicating a sacred battleground for Union soldiers, with a larger message of equality and nation-building.

That’s not the way Carlson interpreted history. He praised the Confederate soldiers’ gallantry at Gettysburg: They did it because they believed in a cause. Now in the end they were on the losing side of that cause, but they did it because of their loyalty to their country and their cause.”

Carlson continued: “That’s the purpose of Martin Luther King’s day, that they did not die in vain.”

D’oh kay, then.

No, Lincoln wanted to make sure the nation was saved so Union soldiers didn’t die for no reason.

As for Carlson’s assertion that Ronald Reagan was responsible for MLK Day, that’s as ignorant as his belief that the day was made to honor Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg.

President Reagan signed the legislation creating MLK Day in 1983, that is true. But Reagan was non-committal toward honoring King and, in fact, some of his aides believed that if Reagan came out in favor of MLK Day too strongly it would be seen as disingenuous because the president’s record on minorities was so indifferent. Reagan didn’t show support for MLK Day until Congressional passage became inevitable.


According to Time magazine, one of Reagan’s objections to honoring King was that other “groups” would want holidays if King got one. There was also a political angle: There was an election upcoming in 1984 and Reagan hoped supporting MLK Day would appeal to moderate white voters (he had no hope of winning the black vote).

In “honoring” King, Carlson quoted Reagan three times. To repeat: Carlson didn’t find time to quote King once. Maybe he didn’t believe there was enough available material.In closing, Carlson said: “I wanted to relate back to why it happened and the man who had the courage enough to say we’re going to make it a legal holiday.”

King gave his life for the civil rights movement, to make life better for those who came after him. Reagan signed a bill he tepidly supported because he had no choice, and partially for political purposes. Yet Carlson sees Reagan as having courage.

It should be noted that North Dakota did not recognize MLK Day until 1991, eight years after federal passage. Since, state employees have gotten the day off.

If you don’t feel the guilt Carlson believes you should feel for not working when he and his fellow legislators are, you can thank Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. And Ronald Reagan. Don’t forget him.

As for Martin Luther King Jr., meh. He played a bit role in the formation of a holiday named after him. At least according to Al Carlson, history professor.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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