Happy Birthday (to ya)!
The long road to get a day for MLK.
In 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King’s body was not pulled behind a raised catafalque, nor did he lie in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, or any other capitol. No, King’s body received mourners at the R.S. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home in Memphis, and in Atlanta, he was borne in a simple funeral cart made of Georgia pine, pulled by two mules, “Belle” and “Adla”.
Of course, you know that King was shot in the throat by James Earl Ray on April 4th, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. He always knew his life was in danger, but never preached the violent methods advocated by his contemporary civil rights leader Malcolm X. Martin Luther King was first a Baptist preacher, adherent to Scripture and the message of the cross, and second, an activist committed to equal rights for America’s Black population.
Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to recognize MLK’s birthday as a federal holiday every year from 1968, with little support from his fellow legislators outside the Congressional Black Caucus. Then in 1979, President Jimmy Carter, who as governor of Georgia had his office not two miles from King’s former pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, announced his support of the bill. Congress held hearings, and King’s widow Coretta Scott King testified. But the bill fell short by five votes.
Thanks for reading The Racket News ™! Subscribe for free—enter your email below.
Over the years, various states had recognized the holiday, starting with Connecticut and Illinois in 1973 (it was vetoed in both states two years earlier), followed by Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Ohio, New Jersey, Michigan (Conyers’ home state), Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Missouri. But Congress wasn’t moving fast enough.
Like anything political, it would take a cultural event to force the issue. That cultural force of nature was Stevie Wonder. Wonder had, by 1979, won a dozen Grammy Awards (he has won a total of 25, more than any solo artist, a record that even Taylor Swift will find difficult to approach). From 1979 through 1981, Wonder appeared at rallies and on tour with Coretta, including a benefit concert on the National Mall.
With President Reagan in the White House, Wonder and Coretta collected 6 million signatures on a petition to recognize MLK Day, which they delivered to Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill in 1983. The House of Representatives passed the bill 338 to 90.
In the Senate, North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms opposed the bill, Helms saying it brought King to “the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach that of Washington’s.” He also accused the late King of being a communist, an unanswerable charge. The Senate passed the measure 78 to 22 over Helms’ objection, and Reagan signed MLK Day into law on November 2, 1983.
Not all states immediately followed the federal government in recognizing MLK Day. In 1984, Alabama Governor George Wallace supported combining a holiday celebrating Robert E. Lee’s birthday with MLK’s birthday, which the state legislature passed and Wallace signed into law on May 8th of that year. Lee never supported having any kind of recognition during his life, and would have deplored Alabama’s decision to celebrate “Lee-King Day”. Alabama and Mississippi have never repealed Lee-King Day to give MLK his own day. Shame on them.
The last state to recognize MLK Day was Utah, in 2000. In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill into law separating its own Lee-King Day on March 14, 2017. My home state of New Hampshire didn’t recognize MLK Day until Jesse Jackson challenged the legislature in a speech from Portsmouth on February 11, 1999—the state did recognize “Civil Rights Day” but voted to rename the holiday later that year.
Arizona recognized the holiday by executive order of Governor Bruce Babbitt after the state legislature voted it down in 1986. After Evan Meacham took office in 1987, he rescinded Babbitt’s order (having campaigned on the issue), leading to mass protests and the loss of $20 million in convention business. Meacham was impeached and removed from office in 1988 for obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds. Despite Governor Rose Moffard’s efforts, and her signing a bill passed in 1989, opponents forced a referendum on the holiday by collecting enough signatures, canceling the law until the people voted.
It took the NFL to cure Arizona of its recalcitrance. Owners threatened to remove Super Bowl XXVII from Tempe, which was scheduled for January 31, 1993, if MLK Day was not approved. Two referendums, Proposition 301, which would eliminate Columbus Day, and Proposition 302, which would combine Washington and Lincoln’s Birthday holidays and create an MLK Day holiday, were defeated at the ballot box. The NFL owners kept their word: Troy Aikman earned his MVP playing at the Rose Bowl.
The rebuke cost Arizona around $230 million in lost revenue. By the end of 1992, Arizonans had learned their lesson. They passed Proposition 300 to give Martin Luther King his day on November 2, 1992, by a margin of 325,299 votes—61.33% voting yes. Aikman won his third Super Bowl ring on January 28, 1996, in Tempe, which incidentally was the most-watched sporting event in American television history. Seems fitting it was secured by the people acknowledging Martin Luther King.
One more thing, You may have heard the song Stevie Wonder wrote, sung at birthday parties, especially in Black families. It’s called “Happy Birthday.” I didn’t know until today that this song was written for Martin Luther King, released after the 1979 failure by Congress to pass the federal holiday. One of the lyrics of the song says:
The time is overdue
For people like me and you
Who know the way to truth
Is love and unity to all God's children
You know, I think George Washington would celebrate a holiday like that. He never wanted a holiday in his name, but I think he would, if he was alive to see it, wholeheartedly support a holiday in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Happy Birthday to ya!