WASHINGTON – It was one of those routine bills that often fly through Congress in minutes – a measure to name a post office to honor a famous American, this time the late poet and civil rights leader Maya Angelou.
But when Democratic Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina asked the U.S. House of Representatives to put Angelou’s name on the center city post office in Winston-Salem, N.C., where she lived for more than 30 years, it raised hackles with some Republicans. Nine voted against the measure Tuesday, several later criticizing Angelou for supporting Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s communist government.
That set off testy exchanges with deeply racial overtones, with Adams and New York Rep. Steve Israel accusing the dissenters of disrespecting a woman who deserved only the highest regard.
The nine who voted no were Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Ken Buck of Colorado, Michael Burgess of Texas, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin, Andy Harris of Maryland, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Alex Mooney of West Virginia and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi.
“These nine Republicans chose to blatantly disrespect an extraordinary woman who worked to crush gender and racial barriers in our country,” Adams said in a statement. “In true Maya Angelou fashion, I believe when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. Their actions are yet another painful addition to radical Republican obstructionism.”
Duncan, chairman of a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over Cuba that he said had taken witnesses’ testimony about human rights abuses, said he objected solely because of Angelou’s support for Castro.
“While Dr. Angelou made terrific contributions to both literature and civil rights, her vocal support of the communist regime in Cuba gave me pause when deciding whether to name a taxpayer-funded building after her,” he said in a statement.
The episode came on the same day that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin sought to set a higher tone among Republicans, assailing their party’s presidential front-runner, Donald Trump, for failing to repudiate white supremacist groups.
Racial undercurrents have bubbled to the surface in the polarized Congress several times in the past few years. Last year, after a gunman killed nine black worshippers in a Charleston, S.C., church, numerous Republicans threw their support behind removing the Confederate flag from government facilities, but not everybody signed on.
Angelou, who died in 2014 at age 86, was the first black author to make the nonfiction bestseller’s list with her 1970 memoir about her early childhood, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
The Republican-dominated North Carolina House delegation all supported Adams’ bill. But on the House floor, after Adams hailed Angelou as “one of our country’s greatest writers, thought leaders and an overall phenomenal woman,” freshman Republican Rep. Grothman of Wisconsin stood to speak.
Calling it “a big decision” to put someone’s name on a post office, he said, “people should investigate Maya Angelou a little bit,” pointing to articles about her in conservative publications such as the American Spectator.
One such article, in the days after Angelou died, said she was “more revered than read” and that she was “survived by her seven autobiographies.”
“At her most irresponsible,” it said, “she embraced Fidel Castro, Malcolm X and Bill Clinton – a mistake for a lady of any age.”
Grothman’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Rep. Burgess of Texas said in a statement: “It has been my experience in the past that these post office namings have been used to honor and remember young men and women who have lost their lives fighting for our country. Yesterday, I was asked to vote to name a post office for a pro-Castro and pro-communist individual, and I could not support that.”
Israel, a New York Democrat, said the Republicans’ no vote “only adds to the damaging actions they’ve taken this year to reverse progress from long and hard-fought civil rights battles.”
Angelou already has some honor within the U.S. Postal Service. She graces a set of stamps that was issued last year. The stamps include one of her well-known quotes:
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has the answer, it sings because it has a song.”
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