John McCain honored the sacrifice and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and said today that he was wrong to oppose a federal holiday for King.
"I was wrong. I was wrong," he said in front of the Lorraine Motel after an impromptu tour of where King was assassinated 40 years ago. "We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans."
Some in the crowd heckled him, but others shouted, "We forgive you. We forgive you."
The presumptive Republican nominee also told the crowd, gathered in the rain, about when he learned of King's assassination, from the guards at the "Hanoi Hilton," where he was being held as a prisoner of war after being shot down over North Vietnam.
"I remember first learning what had happened here on the fourth of April 1968, feeling just as everyone else did back home, only perhaps even more uncertain and alarmed for my country in the darkness that was then enclosed around me and my fellow captives," he said. "In our circumstances at the time, good news from America was hard to come by. But the bad news was a different matter, and each new report of violence, rioting, and other tribulations in America was delivered without delay. The enemy had correctly calculated that the news from Memphis would deeply wound morale, and leave us worried and afraid for our country. Doubtless it boosted our captors' morale, confirming their belief that America was a lost cause, and that the future belonged to them.
"Yet how differently it all turned out," McCain said in remarks that he also plans to make later today to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that King led. "And if they had been the more reflective kind, our enemies would have understood that the cause of Dr. King was bigger than any one man, and could not be stopped by force of violence. Struggle is rewarded, in God's own time. Wrongs are set right and evil is overcome. We know this to be true because it is the story of the man we honor today, and because it is the story of our country."
UPDATE: The Democratic National Committee, however, was not sold by McCain's apology.
"It's frankly disingenuous for John McCain to try and reinvent himself for the general election by distorting his record of opposing a holiday honoring Dr. King. John McCain should be honest about his full record of opposing the federal holiday, opposing a state holiday four years later, using divisive language to defend himself, and voting to cut off funding for the commission working to promote the King holiday as recently as 1994," spokeswoman Karen Finney said in a statement.
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Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.