When John Conyers put forth legislation to commemorate the birth date of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday in 1979, he felt the universally high esteem with which the late Reverend was held would translate to easy passage of the bill. Instead what he got was a dose of reality, in the person of several Congressmen from southern states stonewalling his attempts behind the scenes and on the House floor.
Despite his efforts, the bill would fail passage by 5 votes.
On October 10, 1980, the King Center was granted National Historic Site status by the United States Government. The King Family and the Trustees of the Center used the new designation to wage a furious public relations campaign, targeting the public and private corporations, to engender support for the bill.
Just as the King Center got it's campaign underway, the consortium of southern Congressmen got a new ally in their fight, in the person of the recently-retired U.S. Navy officer, newly elected as Representative for the 1st District of Arizona, John McCain.
Rep. McCain's opposition for the King legislation cannot be overstated, as his coming on board gave the regionally-isolated southerner's argument in the negative, cache. This, much like the Olympia Snowe "bipartisan" health care vote, could now be called "national," not regional, opposition.
Not to be outdone, the King Center countered the move with a new recruit of its own.
In 1981, after getting word of the actions taking place in Congress, and making a confirmation phone call to Dr. King' widow, Coretta Scott King, an artist decided he would not got to sleep until he had come up with a way to support the effort. Stevie Wonder would, in the process of 3 days, write, produce and record the song "Happy Birthday."
The song was crafted as equal parts honorarium and protest, to those that would choose to oppose recognition of a man, Dr. King, who had literally given his life in the effort to bring justice to all those experiencing injustice.
The song was made with no financial consideration, as Wonder literally gave away tens of thousands of copies, but instead purely to get the public behind the movement to break the congressional stalemate. Few people know this to be the reason for the song never being a Billboard chart-topper. Though in London, where the record was exclusively sold (Brits can't vote in the U.S.), the record would rocket to #2 on the charts, and stay there for 5 weeks.
Across the America, while Wonder's "Happy Birthday" was receiving heavy radio rotation, workers canvassed neighborhoods to collect signatures from voters in support of the King holiday. I can recall watching my teacher at Nettlehorst Elementary signing her name on the petition as we were filing into my 6th grade music class.
Mrs. Burns' signature would be joined by another 6,000,000 others, eventually becoming the single most successful (in terms of verifiable signatures) petition campaign in United States history.
By 1982, with the overwhelming majority of Americans in support, the bill would be reintroduced in Congress, pass both Houses easily, and, by late-1983, find it's way to the President's desk.
On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan, who reversed his staunch opposition in the face of the bill's wide-ranging public support, signed the bill to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day a National Federal Holiday, beginning in January 1986.
I wish that were the end of our story, but it ain't.
South Carolina and Arizona refused to recognize the holiday in their states. The latter's Governor, Evan Mechem, with the full-throated support of Representative McCain, leading a well-documented national media campaign to not just refuse to observe the King holiday, but call for other states to join Arizona's stance in snubbing the Civil Rights leader.
It would take 14 years for the two states to join rest of civilization (and the country) in their observation of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday. That same year Utah, a state founded by a man, Joseph Smith Jr., who founded Mormonism, which precluded people of African descent from entering heaven (under ANY circumstance), would officially recognize "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day." For the prior fourteen years it had been known, exclusively in the state of Utah, as "Human Rights Day."
2000 would also bring about the official adoption of "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day" in the great state of Virginia. From 1986 until then, the state had, UNBELIEVABLY, chosen the third Monday of January to celebrate, in this order, "Lee-Jackson-King Day." If those names sound familiar, it's because they are familiar.
Robert Edward Lee and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson were the two most prominent Generals in the army of the secessionist Southern States in the Civil War. The idea of honoring Dr. King was considered politically untenable in Virginia, so they chose to include these two people who had only a January birth date in common with the man the rest of the nation was choosing to honor at the same time.
So this January, as the nation prepares to honor the memory of a man whose life's work was so much more than the "I Have A Dream" speech, we stand united as a country in saying the work he laid as foundation for our society was relevant, important and worthy of application.
The night before he died, while speaking to a group of striking sanitation (sic. garbage) workers, Dr. King said the following:
"Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."Is that not the least possible debt we owe? To carry the torch he brought so far along that difficult road for the betterment of us all? I think so as well.
The "I've Been to the Mountaintop" Speech, in it's entirety: