The Making of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Screen Shot 2013-01-18 at 10.50.49 AM“This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday,” said Coretta Scott King after President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983. But in the complicated history of Martin Luther King, Jr Day, it has only recently been a holiday for all the people, all the time.

Fifteen years earlier, on April 4, 1968, Mrs. King had lost her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassin’s bullet. In the months after the death of the civil rights icon, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation seeking to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday. The King Memorial Center in Atlanta was founded around the same time, and it sponsored the first annual observance of King’s birthday, in January 1969, almost a decade and a half before it became an official government-sanctioned holiday. Before then, individual states including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut had passed their own bills celebrating the occasion. The origins of the holiday are mired in racism, politics and conspiracy. Three years after Conyers introduced preliminary legislation in 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — which King headed from its inception until his death — presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting a King holiday. The bill languished in Congress for eight years, unable to gain enough support until President Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia and the first Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson, vowed to support a King holiday.

Reinvigorated by the President’s support, King’s widow, Coretta, testified before joint hearings of Congress and organized a nationwide lobby to support the bill. Yet in November 1979, Conyers’ King-holiday bill was defeated in the House by just five votes. Coretta continued her fight for approval of a national holiday, testifying before Congress several more times and mobilizing governors, mayors and city council members across the nation to make the passage of a King-holiday bill part of their agenda. Singer Stevie Wonder became a prominent proponent and released the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980 — it became a rallying cry. He and Coretta went on to present a second petition to Congress, this one containing 6 million signatures of support. Their work finally paid off when the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 to 90.

The bill faced a somewhat tougher fight in the Senate, however. In an opposition campaign led primarily by Republican Senators John P. East and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, some attempted to emphasize King’s associations with communists and his alleged sexual dalliances as reasons not to honor him with a federal holiday. As part of his efforts, on Oct. 3, 1983, Helms read a paper on the Senate floor, written by an aide to Senator East, called “Martin Luther King Jr.: Political Activities and Associations” and also provided a 300-page into their account. The taxpayer doesn’t find out about this until much later. They get the refund that they are expecting, and it’s only when the IRS comes out trying to collect this erroneous refund from the taxpayer that they find out the return has been altered. We learned that to go after the preparer, you have supplemental document to the members of the Senate detailing King’s communist connections. Some Senators expressed outrage over Helms’ actions, including New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who threw the document to he ground, stomped on it and deemed it a “packet of filth.”

Arguing that any person opposing a King holiday would automatically be dubbed a racist, Helms urged the Senate not to be bullied into elevating King to “the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach that of Washington’s” by making him one of the few individuals honored by a federal holiday. The day before the bill passed the Senate, District Judge John Lewis Smith Jr. denied Helms’ request to unseal FBI surveillance tapes of King that were due to remain sealed until 2027. President Reagan signed the bill into law in November 1983 and the first official holiday was observed on the third Monday of January 1986.
At the time, only 27 states and Washington, D.C., honored the holiday. Most famously, all three Arizona House Republicans including current Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, voted against the bill in ’83. The state did not vote in favor of recognizing the holiday until 1992, not only rejecting pleas from Reagan and then Arizona governor Evan Mecham but also losing the NFL’s support when the league moved Super Bowl XXVII from Sun Devil Stadium, in Tempe, to California in protest. Arizona was not the only state openly contemptuous of federal law. In 2000, 17 years after the law’s official passage and the same year it pulled the Confederate flag down from its statehouse dome, South Carolina became the last state to sign a bill recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.

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