The current New Yorker magazine has a fascinating piece by Jelani Cobb describing the long torturous journey the Martin Luther King Day holiday took to get to today’s observance. Even as someone who lived through those times, it comes as a surprise now to realize just how long a journey it was.
In the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, thousands of shocked mourners from across the country congregated in that city to march downtown on the path that King had traveled. “The march served as a momentary validation of King’s work,” Cobb writes, but one of the marchers, U.S. Representative John Conyers of Michigan, “hoped to craft a more enduring one.” That same week, he introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to make King’s birthday, January 15, a national holiday. The legislation languished in committee, Cobb writes.
Two months later, Coretta Scott King founded the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. “It was intended to serve as a wellspring for works of the type to which her husband had dedicated his life,” Cobb writes, “but it was quickly deployed in a secondary mission: to lobby for the holiday.” Mrs. King later described it as “a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation and sharing.”
Cobb continues: “In 1971, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King had led, delivered to Congress a petition with three million signatures in support of the effort. In 1973, Harold Washington, an Illinois state representative who was later elected the first black mayor of Chicago, sponsored a bill that made his state the first to recognize the holiday. A handful of other states followed, but there was little momentum. Coretta Scott King kept up the pressure on elected officials, writing, speaking and testifying twice before congressional committees.”
In 1979, a House bill failed by five votes, despite President Jimmy Carter’s endorsement and the composition of a special song by Stevie Wonder. Finally, in 1983, Cobb writes, “a bill written by Jack Kemp, a Republican and Katie Hall, a Democrat, passed in the House. Jesse Helms, who had denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act as ‘the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress,’ tried, unsuccessfully, to have the bill, which was sponsored by Edward Kennedy, sent back to committee. Undaunted, Helms moved to have King’s FBI files declassified so that the Senate might explore the specious claim that he was a Communist stooge. In a fit of anger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw a copy of Helms’s documents to the floor of the Senate, denouncing them as ‘filth.’ The bill passed by a vote of 78 to 22, and President Ronald Reagan, despite initial reluctance, signed it into law in November of 1983, declaring that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day would be celebrated every year on the third Monday of January.”
It had taken 15 years, and even then, it was not fully recognized in all the states until 1999 (New Hampshire was the last). And furthermore, Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi insist on also celebrating on that day the birthday of Robert E. Lee.
I have visited the King Center in Atlanta twice. The second time was during the 1996 Olympics with our daughters. As they lingered over exhibits, I chatted with the lovely young African-American tour guide who expressed surprise when she learned it was my husband’s and my second visit. “We wanted our children to experience it,” I said. Her eyes filled with tears. “He’s our hero too, you know.” And we hugged.