Monday, January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (January 20, 2014) -- Honor, Superbowl History, and Remembrance

Gallery of 20th Century Martyrs at the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster ("Westminster Abbey"), London, England.  Martin Luther King is second from the right with Mother Elizabeth of Russia to his right, Archbishop Oscar Romero to his immediate left and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his far left.

Today is the 28th observation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the official federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was actually born on January 15, 1929, but pursuant to the "Uniform Monday Holiday Act," the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his birthday has been officially set for observation on the third Monday of each January.

The creation of this holiday did not have a smooth road and was controversial among certain segments of the political and social spectrum in the United States.  The idea of a holiday to honor King was first proposed and promoted by labor unions. Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee to support black public works employees who were members of labor union AFSCME Local 1733 when he was shot and killed on the balcony outside his room in the Lorraine Motel. Black union members had been mistreated for some time and King was supporting them in their efforts to prevent repeats of incidents such as when black road repairmen were paid for two hours of work while white repairmen were paid for the entire day when the workforce was sent home due to bad weather.

The first bill to establish a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. was submitted by Senator Edward Brooke (Republican from Massachusetts) and Representative John Conyers (Democrat from Michigan).  The bill came to a vote in 1979 and fell short of passage by 5 votes. The main arguments against the bill were: (1)  that only two other people had federal holidays specifically honoring them -- George Washington and Christopher Columbus; (2) that such a paid holiday for federal workers would be "too expensive;" and (3) that a holiday to honor a private citizen who had never been elected to public office would be contrary to tradition [conveniently forgetting I suppose that Christopher Columbus had never been elected to public office and was never even a citizen of the United States].  

It was not until November 2, 1983 that President Ronald Reagan finally signed into law a bill establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday (although President Reagan initially opposed the holiday on cost grounds). The initial observation of the holiday was set for January 20, 1986 -- the third Monday of January that year -- but not without opposition and reluctance to actually observe the holiday. The two Senators from North Carolina (Republicans Jesse Helms and John East) opposed the holiday on the grounds King was not important enough to receive such an honor.  They attacked King for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his alleged "Marxism." Helms went so far as to filibuster the holiday bill in October 1983 and he submitted a 300-page report accusing Dr. King of having associations with communists. In a dramatic response to Helms on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Democrat from NY) threw down the Helms report and stomped on it calling it "a packet of filth."

Even after passage of the federal MLK Day holiday into law, opposition and attempted limitation continued. For example, John McCain (Republican Senator from Arizona) voted against the federal holiday and then later defended Arizona Governor Evan Mecham (who was later impeached and removed from office in disgrace for other reasons) when he rescinded the state King holiday established by Mecham's predecessor (Democrat Gov. Bruce Babbitt) in 1986. It was only when criticism grew within and without Arizona that Sen. McCain changed his position and encouraged recognition of the holiday despite Mecham's opposition and rescission. Nevertheless, in 1989 (three years after MLK Day became a federal holiday) Arizona replaced Columbus Day with a King holiday.  As a result, the National Football League threatened in 1990 to move the 1993 Superbowl planned for Arizona to another location.  While the Arizona legislature did pass a bill to keep both Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Day, 76% of Arizona voters persisted in rejecting the King holiday. The NFL subsequently moved the 1993 Superbowl to Pasadena, California and it was estimated Arizona lost $500 million in anticipated revenues as a result!

The last state to have a holiday named after Dr. King was New Hampshire. In 1991, N.H. had created a co-called "Civil Rights Day" in place of another little known or observed holiday called "Fast Day" (a day of public fasting and prayer in New England states from 1670 - 1991).  Civil Rights Day was finally changed to "Martin Luther King Day" in 1999. In 2000 South Carolina made Martin Luther King's birthday an official paid holiday for state workers -- who previously could choose to celebrate MLK Day or one of three Confederate holidays.

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I posted here last October  about the importance of pursuing genealogy by looking forward as well as looking into the past -- and to look forward by recording for descendants observations and experiences we personally had around historical events.  And so I want to end this particular post by recalling my experience of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 (as best I can recall). 

In April 1968 I was living in New Jersey and I had just turned 16 years old two days before Dr. King was shot and killed in Memphis. I was a sophomore in high school and still one year away from qualifying for a driver's license in New Jersey. Outside of school work, I was a Boy Scout, an avid backpacker (although not yet a competitive track and cross country runner), and a stock-boy at S.S. Kresge's in the Cherry Hill Mall; but I was not particularly aware of or involved in social and political issues other than occasional debates about the Vietnam War stimulated by history and social studies teachers at school.  That all changed in the awful spring of 1968.  It began with the killing of Dr.King and was followed weeks later with the killing of Sen. Robert Kennedy. 

April 4, 1968 was a Thursday -- which was the regular meeting night for our Boy Scout troop. Since I walked to the meetings (which began at 7:00 PM), and our family normally sat down to supper at 6:00 PM, I was up from supper and gone by 6:30 or shortly thereafter -- so I did not learn of the shooting until close to the end of the troop meeting.  [Memphis, TN is in the Central time zone and so was an hour behind New Jersey.]  

Scouts who were dropped off by car were also picked up and some of the parents would arrive before the 8:30 PM end of the meetings.  On this particular night, I remember several parents arriving earlier than usual and some parents appeared to pick up sons that had walked to the meeting.  This was when most of us learned about the shooting and, simultaneously, of Dr. King's death, because he was pronounced dead just after 7:00 PM Central time, which was just before our meeting ended at 8:30 PM Eastern time. Many of the parents looked quite upset and worried and I recall hearing whispered comments about likely violence in Philadelphia just across the Delaware River from the town in which we lived.  There was fear that violence could spread into the suburbs on both sides of the river. I declined more than one offer for a ride home and walked the mile or so home upset at yet another shooting of a national figure as I thought back to President Kennedy's assassination just over four years earlier.

In the days after the killing of Dr. King, the news carried almost nothing but assassination-related stories in print and on TV.  Riots erupted in as many as 125 cities across the country including Pittsburgh, Chicago, Baltimore, New York, and Washington, DC. (where the rioting lasted four days). In Washington crowds later estimated to be 20,000 strong took to the streets and commercial buildings were looted and set afire. The firefighters were prevented from responding by the rioters.  The inner city burned and parts were still a charred, empty zone when I moved to DC to attend law school ten years later in 1978.

The fear and debate about the violent reaction to Dr. King's killing  -- and what it meant for the future of the civil rights movement -- went on for weeks.  And then things got even worse when Bobby Kennedy was killed on June 5, 1968 and a riot broke out at the Democratic Convention in late August! It was an awful spring and summer and it seemed the country was falling apart along race, social and political lines. I and many teenagers had no idea what was happening or how it was going to end.  For many of us it was a sudden awakening to issues and events outside our own insulated worlds and most of us began paying a lot more attention to the nightly news with its images of the war in Vietnam, the "women's lib" protests, the black athlete protests at the Mexico Olympics, and the hijack of a New York commercial airliner to Cuba.
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Photograph by T. Taylor 19 April 2011.  The photographer has placed the image in the Creative Commons and granted license to copy distribute and transmit so long as attribution is stated.        
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Copyright 2014, John D. Tew
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