Monday, January 20: the back-end of another three-day weekend. The banks and post offices are closed, which is, in this millennium, a minor inconvenience, considering how much we can do online now. But it reminds us this day is a federal holiday. One that isn’t welcome throughout the country.
Today is the day we honor the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most influential civil rights leader in our history. There are many other African-Americans in our nation’s past that played big, important parts in the struggle for dignity and civil rights, paving the way for someone like Dr. King to emerge and lead a movement to change the status quo. But, not everyone in America thinks Dr. King should be so honored.
The bill creating the holiday didn’t get passed on the first attempt, it missed passage in the House of Representatives by three votes in 1980. But, with Republican Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office, the bill was finally passed in 1983 and signed by President Reagan — who, at first, opposed it.
Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina was against it of course. He wrote a 300-page monstrosity that accused King of having “associations” with communists. It was denounced from all quarters.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona opposed the holiday and supported Arizona governor Evan Mecham’s rescinding the holiday in Arizona. But, they began receiving such a backlash that McCain reversed his position and started lobbying Mecham to do the same.
Governor Mecham was a piece of work. He once said he keeps the radios on in his house and office because it keeps the lasers out. That, among other things, like appointing felons to top state government jobs (a convicted armed robber and an extortionist) caused the voters of Arizona to mount a recall. Even the Republican-controlled state legislature wanted Mecham out of office. The late GOP Senator Barry Goldwater wanted Mecham to leave. Mecham was a colorful character.
After his refusal to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Mecham was heard making racially charged remarks, especially after organizations started moving their conventions and other events from Arizona to other places, including the NFL and NBA.
Of the basketball association’s decision to move their convention, Mecham said, “Well, the N.B.A. I guess they forget how many white people they get coming to watch them play.” Badum-bump.
Mecham was eventually forced from office and Arizona went through political conniptions to get the holiday approved in 1993, but by then the NFL had moved Super Bowl XXVII from Arizona to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA, costing the Arizona economy a half-billion dollars in revenue.
But, that isn’t the end of the insult at least. In Alabama and Mississippi the most prominent civil rights leader in our nation’s history shares a holiday with a Confederate general — a traitor.
In Arizona and New Hampshire the day is known as Martin Luther King, Jr./Civil Rights Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Day.
And there are still people who oppose honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a federal (or state) holiday.
What did this man do to deserve a federal holiday? His dedication to bring civil rights to the states in the union that had institutionalized discrimination, through non-violent civil disobedience, advanced not just civil rights, but the ideal that change could be achieved without violence. An idea that seems lost in this era.
Before Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other civil rights marchers, protesters, freedom riders and voting rights volunteers, non-white citizens were denied the basic right to vote and were forced to live in segregated communities with sub-standard housing, schools and hospitals.
A lot of people gave their lives for those civil rights, many others suffered severe injuries. King himself was jailed a number of times, but in spite of the heavy intimidation, King refused to stop and in 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed and then signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
As a kid growing up in Milwaukee, WI, I was far removed from the events unfolding throughout the South, but completely shocked watching non-violent protestors on the nightly news being sprayed with high-pressure hoses, or having dogs let loose on them and the most horrific: watching police officers beating them with kicks, punches and billy clubs — and the ones taking this beating were non-violent protestors just demanding to get the same civil rights we had in our quiet — segregated — neighborhood in the North.
During the nightly news one night I asked my dad why the police were doing that to those people. Dad said it was because the protesters were breaking the law, but from the tone of his voice he didn’t really believe his answer. Dear Old Dad just didn’t really have an explanation that even he could find acceptable.
Since then the Voting Rights Act has been updated — until last year, of course, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down section 4, the part of the law with the formula for determining which jurisdictions are subject to Justice Department pre-clearance before changing voting laws.
It took opponents of civil rights 48 years to overturn what Dr. King and his fellow civil rights marchers worked so hard to see enacted — but they did.
Dr. King can take a little comfort from this turn of events: those who wish to suppress the Black vote — and the student and the elderly vote — aren’t doing it for racial reasons, they’re doing it for political ambitions. The GOP wants to keep all those people who vote for the Democrats away from the polls.
Of course people like to ask, “If you have to show your I.D. to get on a flight or drive a car, why not when you go into a voting booth?”
Because requiring these new I.D’s presents a new financial burden on people who cannot afford the cost of getting I.D.’s, especially if they live in rural areas that require long distance trips to obtain the I.D.’s or birth certificates to acquire the voting I.D’s. It specifically hurts people who cannot afford to buy a plane ticket or own and operate a motor vehicle. Not to mention, air travel and driving a car are not basic human rights, like voting.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contribution to civil rights hasn’t been forgotten in this country, the federal holiday makes sure of that. We’ve just rolled back some of those accomplishments.
Still, it’s really good and important that we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We still have a long way to go to achieve his dream that this nation will, “live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. ” But we are a far better nation because of his leadership and efforts. Maybe one day we’ll stop identifying ourselves as hyphenated Americans and just call ourselves Americans.
Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.