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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Origins of MLK Day

Today, it seems everyone tries to co-opt the name and message of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr for their own cause. His name is invoked to promote everything from gun laws and shoe sales. Politicians know to quote him if they want to get elected, and you can bet every school child knows his name (even while the rest of Black history is ignored).

He's one popular guy and revered guy--as he should be. But he's not always had that status. The battle against naming a national holiday after him was fought tooth and nail. And it's final adoption across the country was more recent than you might think.

Less than a month after King was killed, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation to create a national holiday to honor him. Three years later the Southern Christian Leadership Conference submitted a petition with 3 million signatures in support of a national MLK holiday. But the bill met significant opposition in Congress and had trouble gaining much traction.

Rep. John Conyers Jr.
Many of the objections to King's work sound terribly familiar today. As is often the case, so-called moderates believed the pace of progress be slowed. At the time, author David Garrow suggested that “a lot of younger people today probably aren’t aware of just how virulent that open segregationist racism against black people was.”

Hours after King's 'I Have a Dream' speech, Senator Strom Thurmond argued that “the Negroes in this country own more refrigerators, and more automobiles, than they do in any other country,” (an argument often re-used today). He continued, “no one is deprived of freedom that I know about.” Indeed, shortly before his death, a national Gallup poll showed that only 33% of Americans felt positively about King and his work.

Fifteen years after Kings death, a second petition for a national MLK holiday was submitted to congress, this time with the backing of 6 million signatures. Corretta Scott King, along with Stevie Wonder (listen to his song and watch his interview) and several other celebrities, were able to convince Congress to reexamine Conyers's bill.

The House managed to pass the bill with a 338 to 90 vote. After his decision to support the bill, New York Republican Representative Jack Kemp stated that “I have changed my position on this vote because I really think that the American Revolution will not be complete until we commemorate the civil rights revolution and guarantee those basic declarations of human rights for all Americans and remove those barriers that stand in the way of people being what they are meant to be.”

Wonder and King
The Senate, on the other hand, had more trouble in changing hearts and minds. Opponents emphasized King's opposition to the Vietnam War, and continued to level allegations of communist affiliations. North Carolina Democratic Senator Jesse Helms led a long filibuster to pressure the FBI to release their files on King. The FBI had profiled King for several decades and at one point even sent him a letter "that suggested he kill himself to avoid embarrassing personal revelations hitting the media." Helms hoped that some of these indiscretions would come to light and prevent the forming of a national holiday in King's honor.

Nevertheless, the Senate eventually passed the bill 78 to 22. President Reagan signed the bill on November 2, 1983, at which point Coretta King declared "This is not a black holiday; it is a people's holiday." Similarly, as the bill was being argued in the House, Conyers had stated "I have always viewed it as an indication of the commitment of the House and the nation to the dream of Dr. King. When we pass this legislation, we should signal our commitment to the realization of full employment, world peace and freedom for all.”

The first national observance of MLK Day was in January 1986. At the time, only 27 states honored the holiday. Famously, Arizona fervently resisted the its adoption. All three Arizona House Republicans (including current Senator John McCain) voted against the 1983 bill, followed three years later by a public referendum in which 76% of Arizonans voted against the holiday (prompting Public Enemy's single 'By the Time I Get to Arizona'). As a result of Arizona's continued resistance, the 1993 Super Bowl was moved from Tempe, AZ to Pasadena, CA in protest.

"A day on, not a day off"
It wasn't until 2000 that the last state legally recognized the holiday. In the same year it removed the confederate flag from its statehouse, South Carolina passed a bill to recognize the day, concurrently removing several Confederate holidays from the official calendar.

Even today there is reluctance to observe MLK Day. In fact, it has taken some significant whitewashing to get him to that place, with many of his more soul-convicting speeches ignored. His stances on povertysystemic racism, and black pride are often pushed under the rug. But they are essential to who he was, and the lessons we should take from him.

Rather than reading his speeches or acting on his legacy, many schools continue normal classes on MLK Day. Most employees are expected to report to work, even in places that regularly observe Columbus Day and President's Day. In 2007, 33% of employers gave employees the day off.

Unfortunately, those that are excused from work take it as just that...a day off work. Instead, let's use MLK this year to follow the lead of recent US presidents and use it as "a day on, not a day off." Let's use it to serve one another and increase justice and equity int he world around us. Find some practical ideas here

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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