Why Did It Take So Long For America To Fully Honor Dr. King?
Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Fifteen years later, President Ronald Reagan grudgingly signed the bill into law that created a federal holiday honoring Dr. King. What was the hold-up?
Opponents of the holiday claimed it was too damn expensive, even though Dr. King was an American hero who likely saved countless lives through his nonviolent activism. It was also considered inappropriate somehow to honor a private citizen this way. Yes, Dr. King never held elected office, but he spent most of his life working to overcome barriers preventing Black people from voting, so that was a somewhat petty distinction to make.
North Carolina Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East were more upfront and racist with their opposition. Although Republicans today would swear on a stack of Atlas Shruggeds that Dr. King was a “true conservative," he was labeled a communist while alive. The FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, considered Dr. King an “enemy of the state" who palled around with communists.
Helms condemned Dr. King's opposition to the Vietnam War, which everyone by that point realized was a failure, and accused Dr. King of promoting “action-oriented Marxism" and “radical political views." Not coincidentally, Republicans smeared Senator-elect Raphael Warnock, the pastor at Dr. King's former Atlanta church, as a “radical liberal Marxist" during the Georgia Senate runoff campaign.
The following should also sound familiar. Republicans keep sampling the same old tired beats:
A federal holiday should be an occasion for "shared values," but King's "very name itself remains a source of tension, a deeply troubling symbol of divided society," Helms said.
Helms filibustered the bill in October 1983 and released a 300-page hit piece on Dr. King to the Senate. The document was too thick for Democratic New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to rip in two like a badass Nancy Pelosi, so instead he threw the “packet of filth" on the floor and stomped on it.
Even if Dr. King had been a card-carrying communist (he wasn't), North Carolina, along with the other southern states that waged war on the US, were littered with Confederate memorials honoring avowed traitors. Sure, slaveholding is peak capitalism, but treason is treason.
Reagan snidely remarked in 1983 that Americans would know if Dr. King was a communist sympathizer when the FBI released its surveillance tapes. That happened in 2018 and there was no evidence supporting the FBI's persecution of Dr. King. Just weeks before his assassination, the FBI released a report that described Dr. King as "whole-hearted Marxist who has studied it [Marxism], believes it and agrees with it, but because of his being a minister of religion, does not dare to espouse it publicly." This was all bullshit, but again, doesn't it sound familiar? Conservatives claimed Barack Obama was a Marxist, just like apparently every Black leader to the left of Clarence Thomas.
Although the federal holiday honoring Dr. King went into effect in 1986, several states resisted taking the day off for a Black man. In 1991, the New Hampshire legislature finally created "Civil Rights Day" after ditching its “unique and quirky" April Fast Day. White moderates often took the position that civil rights are swell, but let's not single out the one man who was literally stabbed and shot in pursuit of those rights. This is obviously not consistent with America's elevation of supposed “great men" of history.
Arizona's Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt created a paid MLK holiday in 1986, just before leaving office, but his Republican successor, Evan Mecham, reversed the decision the following year. Mecham was later impeached and removed from office for unrelated sketchiness in 1988. Arizona dithered over honoring MLK for years. This led to boycotts and the NFL refusing to hold the 1993 Super Bowl in the state.
John McCain voted against a federal MLK holiday in 1983. He was in the minority of Republicans by this point. Even fellow House member Dick Cheney had voted for the holiday that year. McCain claimed he "thought that it was not necessary to have another federal holiday, that it cost too much money, that other presidents were not recognized." McCain later told Tim Russert that he “regretted his vote." He apologized again during his 2008 presidential campaign.
New Hampshire finally honored Dr. King in 2000. Some states still conflate MLK Day with other public figures and causes that are offensive to what he stood for. Alabama and Mississippi still have a King-Lee Day, which feels like a prelude to how Southern states 20 years from now will jointly honor Obama and Donald Trump. In 2010, Utah Republicans thought Dr. King shouldn't bogart a whole holiday, so they tried to pass a bill honoring gunmaker John Browning on the same day.
Then-Utah Senate majority leader Scott Jenkins saw no conflict with Browning sharing a holiday with King, whose nonviolent life was ended by a white racist's bullet. “Guns keep the peace," Jenkins claimed, and it doesn't seem to us a mystery whose “peace" he wanted to preserve.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).