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Nine Republicans in Congress Just Voted Against Naming a Post Office After Maya Angelou

Post office bills are usually uncontroversial affairs, but several Republicans bucked honoring the poet and civil rights activist over her supposed ties to communism.
March 2, 2016, 12:40am
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Congress can't agree on much these days apart from naming post offices after some of America's most celebrated icons and underdog local heroes. That is, until today.

Nine House Republicans voted on Tuesday against legislation that would name a post office in North Carolina after Maya Angelou, the celebrated author, poet, and civil rights advocate who read at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. In 2011, three years before her death, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US, alongside honorees who included former President George H.W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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Though the bill was still approved by a hefty margin, fights and defections over bills naming post offices in tribute to individuals are incredibly rare on Capitol Hill. Since January 2015, Congress has rebranded 12 other post offices after people as varied as members of the military, a football player, a former politician, and a nun. In each case, the House passed the bill unanimously.

Why the objection to naming a post office after Maya Angelou? Because she was a communist — at least that's what some of the Republicans who voted against the bill honoring the celebrated author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings are saying.

Wisconsin Rep. Glenn Grothman urged his colleagues to oppose the Angelou post office bill before the vote, telling them to look deeply at her history, particularly as written by two conservative online publications, the American Thinker and the American Spectator. Both sites criticized Angelou's history after her death in 2014.

The association between Angelou and communism appears to be traced back to her support for Fidel Castro. The liberal site ThinkProgress quotes Angelou writing early in her career: "Of course, Castro never had called himself white, so he was OK from the git. Anyhow, America hated Russians, and as black people often said, 'Wasn't no Communist country that put my grandpappa in slavery. Wasn't no Communist lynched my poppa or raped my mamma.'"

The extent of Angelou's support of communism beyond her early esteem for Castro is unclear.

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Nevertheless, Grothman was ultimately joined in voting against the bill by Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Ken Buck of Colorado, Michael Burgess of Texas, Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, Andy Harris of Maryland, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Alex Mooney of West Virginia, and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi.

"While Maya Angelou did many good things in her life, Congressman Mo Brooks did not believe it appropriate to name an American Post Office after a communist sympathizer and thereby honor a person who openly opposed America's interest by supporting Fidel Castro and his regime of civil rights suppression, torture and murder of freedom-loving Cubans," a spokesperson for Brooks said in a statement on Tuesday night.

Harris's office issued a similar statement on Tuesday. VICE News has reached out to the other Republicans who opposed the bill and will update this story with additional comments from those members.

Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York expressed outrage at the congressional defectors in a statement on Tuesday night.

"Naming post offices is one of the most benign and bipartisan duties we perform in the House of Representatives, and there is rarely any opposition," he said. "The fact that these nine members would cast a no vote shows a blatant disrespect and only adds to the damaging actions they've taken this year to reverse progress from long and hard fought civil rights battles."

Follow Sarah Mimms on Twitter: @SarahMMimms