MLK receives Congressional Gold Medal

Congress on Tuesday presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King, honoring the nation's most prominent civil rights hero with Congress's highest civilian honor.

The ceremony, 10 years in the making, took place in the Capitol rotunda, where — one by one — Congress's top leaders extolled “the first family of the civil rights movement” for dedicating their lives to fighting injustice.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), lamenting the “cancer” of racial discrimination that marked most of the 20th century, paid tribute to “a pastor with a booming voice and a potent message [who] changed all that;” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) eulogized the activist who “gave his own life for the cause;” and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) praised King for dedicating his life to asking “the most urgent question: What are you doing for others?”

Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, and Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, both used the stage to urge GOP leaders to consider legislation updating the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted last summer.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), himself a hero of the civil rights movement, also spoke Tuesday, highlighting the message of nonviolence underlying the Kings’ “revolution of ideas.”

“They inspired an entire generation to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis said.       

The ceremony, which also marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act the Kings' advocacy had helped to pass, was a long time coming. 

A decade ago, Congress passed legislation presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Kings. The honor was posthumous for King, who was assassinated for his activism in 1968; his wife, Coretta, was expected to accept the award on the couple's behalf but became ill before the ceremony could take place. She died in 2006.

An updated bill, sponsored by Lewis, was passed unanimously by both chambers of Congress earlier this year. President Obama signed it into law this month.

The medal was accepted Tuesday by King's children, before it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.

“They were my friends,” Lewis said, “my brother and my sister.”

See photos from the event.