Why Did it Take 15 Years to Establish a Federal Holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Ask the Republican Party
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, friends: I hope that today finds you thinking about democracy and how to support it, wherever you are. Remember that some of the most effective ways to forward democracy are local and don’t happen on a single day. Below, I look at the contentiousness of this national holiday: if you know someone who would appreciate an unusual take on the day, please:
On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. The holiday was fourteen long years in the making and turned back repeatedly by members of the Republican Party. Nevertheless, Reagan’s signing statement that day is worth reading because it unveiled the approach to the history of American racism that the GOP has used ever since.
Like Reagan, today’s conservative culture warriors want to mute the history of white resistance to Black civil rights. They want us to believe that justice came swiftly. And most importantly, they want us to think that the task of racial equality is complete.
It took 15 years and a veto-proof vote to recognize King with a federal holiday, as well as dozens of state-level struggles—most of which occurred after the national holiday was signed into law. Before 1983, bills were introduced in only 18 state legislatures to establish a day to honor King and passed in all of them.
But as the party became more conservative and liberals fled to the Democratic party, Republicans did their best to beat these bills back. Republican governor Thomas Meskil vetoed a 1971 vote in Connecticut, but he signed a second bill passed in 1973 when he decided not to run for re-election. In 1971, Republican governor Richard B. Ogilvie vetoed a successful bill in Illinois; his successor, Democrat Dan Walker, signed one passed in 1973.
The struggle became even more acerbic in one state after 1983, as a Republican right-wing pushed back on a Reagan administration they believed was not conservative enough. In Arizona, unable to pass a bill through the legislature, Democratic governor Bruce Babbitt created Martin Luther King Day by executive order in 1986. In 1987, Republican Evan Meacham—later impeached for malfeasance—reversed the EO. Criticized by Black leaders in the state, Meacham famously lectured: "King doesn't deserve a holiday," and "You folks don't need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs." Arizonans only restored Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Arizona via a voter referendum when the National Football League threatened to move the Superbowl.
I will say it bluntly. Some Democrats were on the wrong side of this, and some Republicans (most notably, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, who introduced the first Senate bill to honor King in 1968) were on the right side. But Republicans were the most consistent opponents of Martin Luther King Day. And not coincidentally, Republicans persistently opposed honoring King when the GOP was steadily wooing the Southern white Democrats who had fought Black civil rights tooth and nail into the GOP.
And in a way, opposition to memorializing King with a holiday was the “critical race theory” struggle of its day. By 1972, conservatives, who took over the party under Ronald Reagan, worked hard to erase the history of what they had supported. Those things were voter suppression, uncontrolled anti-Black violence, school segregation, and the segregation of public facilities.
That history was less than a decade old. Worse, the effort to dominate African Americans, politically, economically, and socially, continues today.
Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. raised uncomfortable questions about that past for conservative whites, who were now selling themselves as proponents, not of states’ rights, but of a small federal government; not champions of racism, but people of principle who didn’t “see” race. In this atmosphere, Representative John Conyers introduced a bill in 1979, on the brink of one of the most consequential elections in American history.
Periodically, proponents of the holiday tried and failed to pass a federal bill. Then, in 1981, as one piece of legislation was hanging fire and newly elected president Ronald Reagan was preparing for his inauguration, an emboldened right-wing took a stance in Buffalo, New York. Mayor James Griffith had planned a celebration honoring King on January 15, when the neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America announced plans to mount a rally adjacent to City Hall. The Martin Luther King Day Memorial Rally Coalition, which included prominent Black community leaders, swiftly announced that it would rally against the neo-Nazi group and took the neo-Nazi group to court. The New York Civil Liberties Union jumped in to protect the First Amendment.
But what is also worth noting is how the neo-Nazi group’s explanation for their anti-King statement pulled the curtain back from the racism of Reagan’s campaign. Launched in Philadelphia, Mississippi, famous for its brutality to civil rights activists, one of the dominant themes of the campaign was wasteful spending on welfare recipients bent on cheating taxpayers. As lead organizer Karl Hand told a New York Times reporter that day,
''We chose Martin Luther King's birthday to accentuate the irony that blacks are always belly-aching about preferential treatment but at the same time they have had Supreme Court decisions that have run against the white majority,'' said Mr. Hand, who is information officer for the western New York region of the National Socialist Party of America and formerly a national organizer for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. ''They discriminate against us in jobs, promotions, scholarships. By choosing this date, we can draw attention to this fact.''
Perhaps the fiercest opponent in the Senate was North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. Helms skipped over the generic Republican objections to the holiday—that it would cost American business too much money. Moreover, if King got a holiday, all ethnic groups would want one for their heroes. So instead, he got straight to the point. Channeling his inner neo-Confederate, Helms held the Senate hostage to endless rants drawn from FBI reports on the civil rights movement, which he then distributed on the Senate floor. King, Helms argued, was a communist and a subversive who was not worthy of a holiday.
In 1982, Senate Republicans, clearly embarrassed by Helms’s open racism and eager to draw Black conservatives into the party, floated a compromise bill: why dedicate a day to King when there could be a statue in the Capitol?
Incredibly, the New York Times backed this approach, using possibly some of the most peculiar arguments yet: that King himself would never have wanted it. As the editors wrote on December 10, a statue would put King “among the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Susan B. Anthony.” But a day? Heck, no.
For one thing, there are already too many national holidays. But it's a questionable tribute in any case. Dr. King, a humble man, would have objected to giving that much importance to any individual.
Nor should he be given singular tribute if that demeans other historical black figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X. If there is to be a day of tribute, let it be for all such stalwarts - and the continuing struggle for racial equality.
When the bill finally passed and went to Reagan’s desk, there was no consensus in either party, although Republicans were the most vociferous objectors. In the House, 77 Republicans and 13 Democrats voted against it; in the Senate, it was 18 Republicans and 4 Democrats. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley is the last member of Congress left to have voted against the King holiday (although someone should ask him about this in his 2020 re-election campaign.)
Although “traces of bigotry still mar America,” Reagan declaimed, “I just have to believe that all of us, if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to [the ten] commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true[.].”
Except that he knew that he, and a solidly conservative Republican party that had won the White House by opening their arms to Southern white supremacists abandoned by the Democratic party, had no intention of letting that happen.
At Talking Points Memo, Matt Shuham reports that Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s politically-motivated deployment of the National Guard to the border last March is a disaster—for members of the National Guard. Such deployments cause tremendous disruption for these part-time soldiers. Morale is dreadful, people aren’t getting paid, whole units are sick with Covid-19, and so far, four soldiers have committed suicide. A Redditt thread, Shuham writes, “has become a message board for anonymous venting about conditions, pay, and the perception that soldiers are being torn from their families and jobs to be used as “political pawns.” There is also a court case going through the system that charges the entire operation violates the Constitution's supremacy clause. (January 15, 2022)
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) refuses to sign off on the filibuster carveout to move voting rights legislation. Why? Here’s what she says: it’s a dangerous precedent. Then there’s what she’s done: sign off on an earlier filibuster carveout to raise the debt ceiling. Sinema thus leaves much to the imagination, leading Jordain Carney at The Hill to write that she is “pouring fuel onto talk of a 2024 Democratic primary challenge by digging into her opposition to changing the filibuster.” (January 15, 2022)
What’s wrong with Kamala Harris? Maybe nothing, says Perry Bacon, Jr., a newish opinion writer at The Washington Post. “It is easy to imply, as some of Harris’s critics are, that the Californian shouldn’t be the party’s candidate for president if she isn’t up to the job of vice president,” Bacon writes. “It is harder to admit discomfort with her candidacy because of her gender and race or to acknowledge the even-more-complicated reality that Harris might have shortcomings specific to her but also that her race and gender might make it harder to win the presidency.” But there is an answer to this problem, he says: if Biden doesn't run, Harris can participate in a primary with everyone else who aspires to the nomination and let the people decide. (January 14, 2022)
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