Congressional leaders commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act on Tuesday by posthumously bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal upon Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, for their efforts in passing the landmark legislation.
The Kings' children, Martin Luther King III, Dexter Scott King and Bernice A. King, accepted the honor in the Capitol Rotunda as several hundred looked on. The civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. His wife died in 2006.
"The Civil Rights Act transformed our country," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said. "It made America more American."
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964. It helped end legal discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin, and many consider it the most significant law to come out of the civil rights movement.
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Among those joining Pelosi in praising the Civil Rights Act and the people who made it happen were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. The Republican and Democratic lawmakers held hands at one point to sway and sing "We shall overcome."
Throughout the lawmakers' remarks were calls for a return to the bipartisanship that made laws like the Civil Rights Act possible. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Congress can best celebrate the lives of the Kings by "taking on the tasks before us... tasks surely far, far less daunting than the ones they took on."
"Would they not challenge us to come together... Would they not encourage us, for example, to pass legislation restoring the protections of the Voting Rights Act?" he asked. "Or would they not encourage us to pass legislation reversing the policies that leave thousands of nonviolent young men languishing in prison?"
Boehner said the Civil Rights Act might be the "most fundamental, the most consequential legislation" in American history. McConnell said that Martin Luther King Jr. deserves as much credit as any lawmaker in getting the law passed.
"His role was not just to expose or to confront injustice, but to prepare the country to actually do something about it," McConnell said.
It was the second Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the Kings for their contributions to the civil rights movement. The previous medal was awarded in 2004.
Bernice King said in a statement that she and her brothers were deeply honored that their parents were recognized for their "tireless and sacrificial leadership to advance freedom and justice."
The King siblings have been locked in a legal dispute over the ownership of King's Bible and Nobel Peace Prize. The Martin Luther King Jr. Estate Inc., which is run by Martin Luther King III and Dexter Scott King, wants to sell the items, while Bernice is opposed to the sale. Their eldest sibling, Yolanda King, died in 2007.
The Congressional Gold Medal will be held in the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is expected to open next year.
"The Smithsonian will ensure that as long as there is an America, the courage, the impact and the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King will be honored, preserved and remembered," said Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum.