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The Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday: How Did It Happen?

January 14, 2008 // 2:00pm4:00pm
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Panelists: Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.); Dr. Elsie L. Scott, President and CEO, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; Denise Rolark Barnes, Publisher, The Washington Informer; and Moses Boyd, Senior Counselor, The Washington Group and former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar.

Four days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced legislation to make King's birthday, January 15, a Federal holiday. "I thought long and hard about what would be the most appropriate way to commemorate this extraordinary man's life and work and decided a public holiday would be the best thing we could do. I first called Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and asked her permission to do so, and she agreed." Conyers' efforts would take 15 years before he finally succeeded in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in a Rose Garden ceremony. "This was a grassroots movement with millions of signatures on petitions gathered from around the country and submitted to Congress," noted Conyers, "with leadership from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, labor groups, and singing star Stevie Wonder (who funded a Washington office to lobby for the holiday and wrote and sang the hit song, "Happy Birthday, Dr. King.)"

Conyers reminisced about how he was in law school at Wayne State when Dr. King started the movement. "I knew something very important was happening, so I made a promise to myself to find out more about it as soon as I could." Conyers' father was a labor official with the auto workers in Detroit so met often with Dr. King and the other leaders of the movement when they came north to raise money for their cause. Conyers said he was the only person Dr. King campaigned actively for when he first ran for Congress in 1964, and he won by just 128 votes.

In reflecting on the meaning of King's life, Conyers said King had a global view of issues and tried to convey where we were in world history and what needed to be done to bring justice to the poorest of the poor. "I often wondered why he didn't come out against the Vietnam War sooner than he did, and later learned that he was advised not to because that would be the end of his movement; he was not a foreign policy expert." When he finally did come out against the war late in his life the advice proved true, Conyers said. "The major newspapers turned against him and he became persona non grata."

When asked why he yielded to a freshman member of the Black Caucus, Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.), to sponsor the bill when success was at hand in 1983, Conyers said she was on the committee of jurisdiction and "I was still psychologically against the idea of making the holiday the third Monday in January instead of King's actual birthday, January 15. Coretta Scott King had to talk me into voting for the bill."

Dr. Elsie L. Scott, president of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation recounted the long struggle for the King Holiday. "It was unusual to have a holiday named after an American. Washington's birthday was the only one at the time and many people thought it would be a bad precedent to name a holiday after someone who was not a president." Others objected on grounds that it would be very costly giving Federal workers a day off. "Many thought with the passage of time people would not care anymore," but they were proved wrong as support for the holiday grew and many cities and states adopted their own King Holidays before Congress acted. Scott noted that in 1979, when the bill first was brought up in the House, it was withdrawn after an amendment was adopted making the third Sunday in January the King Day. In 1983, when it was next brought up, it passed the House by a large majority, with many Republicans voting and speaking for it. In the Senate, it faced a filibuster from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) but the Republican and Democratic Leaders filed cloture motions, and Helms backed off.

Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer, said she was a school girl when she heard Dr. King had been shot, and was shocked when a white girl remarked, "I hope they killed him." I knew then that he must have been a very important man. Rolark Barnes recounted how the King Holiday was designated in Washington, D.C. long before it became a Federal holiday, and was the occasion each year for a grand parade, with bands and drill teams from all over the area. He was especially revered in the Eighth Ward of D.C. which is the poorest area in the city, and the only one that was not burned down during the riots (or "economic uprising") that followed his death.

Moses Boyd, senior counsel with the Washington Group, said the King Holiday is more than just the celebration of one man's life and accomplishments but rather the embodiment of all who were involved in the struggle for civil rights throughout our history-—many whose names we don't know but who gave their lives. Boyd said it was wrong to consider King's tactics "passive resistance." "There can be nothing more aggressive morally than putting your body on the line for a great cause." King "was a humanitarian with a moral vision that guided him in what kind of society we should have in this nation. He was an intellectual, a philosopher, a critical thinker, who was very insightful about human nature," observed Boyd. "He had to manage all the tensions within the movement in order to successfully lead it. He could have stepped down after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56, but he kept going, laying his life on the line with every protest and march." Boyd concluded that what the King Day celebration is really all about "is to force people to reflect on why we had this movement and decide what we need to stand for today. We still have a need to change society, and that was Dr. King's central message."

 

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