Holiday for a Hero

Twenty-one years ago a fiercely reluctant President Reagan inked the law that made Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Reagan signed the bill only after a 15-year tumultuous battle in Congress to get the bill passed, and only then when it was clear that the bill would pass with or without his backing.

Reagan bought North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms' loud and oft-shouted view that King was not just a noisy racial agitator, but had strong Communist leanings. Reagan barely finished signing the bill when he was asked whether he thought there was any merit to Helms' Communist charge against King. The Gipper couldn't resist the sly aside, "We'll know in about thirty-five years." Reagan referred to the voluminous FBI surveillance tapes on King that a court had ordered sealed until 2027. The year after Reagan signed the bill, Helms trailed badly in the polls in his re-election bid. He was thought to be a surefire loser. He won handily. The reason some media and political pundits gave for Helms stunning reversal: His filibuster against the King holiday bill.

Reagan's quip and Helms rabid opposition sent the not so subtle message that King really didn't merit a national holiday. Legions of state legislators, local officials, and business leaders instantly took the cue. It took more than a decade sparked by ferocious political, and legal battles and intense opposition from industry groups before all fifty states finally capitulated and passed a King holiday law.

That hasn't ended the fight. Though King's holiday is an officially declared public holiday, many local government agencies still refuse to shut their doors that day. A study of hundreds of businesses by BNA Inc., a Washington-based business news publisher, last year, found that more than 40 percent of state and local public agencies keep their doors open on King's birthday. But opposition to a King holiday is deepest and most persistent among businesses. According to the BNA survey, fewer than three out of 10 businesses give their workers the day off. By contrast, about half of American firms give their employees a day off on Presidents' Day. This is the next least celebrated day next to King's birthday.

Smaller, non-unionized companies have the worst record of all. Barely one-quarter of them grant workers a day off. There are strong signs that the wave of enthusiasm of businesses to celebrate the King day has peaked. Their prime argument against the King holiday is still the cost. The estimate is that the holiday costs governments and the private sector $8 billion to give workers the day off. The heavy cost burden is a valid argument particularly for smaller companies with narrow profit margins, and higher labor costs than major corporations. But even if the expense of honoring the day were not a factor, many private businesses, public agencies, and millions of Americans still probably wouldn't bother commemorating the day.

They simply do not see King as a legitimate American hero. It's no surprise why. By 1968, King had strayed far from the goals of civil rights and moderate political change. He increasingly incorporated anti-capitalist rhetoric in his speeches, and denounced American society as greedy and materialistic. On several occasions he told friends and Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffers that he believed in "democratic socialism" for America. He often expressed admiration for the writings of Karl Marx. He called America "corrupt" and demanded "a fundamental redistribution of the wealth." He accused the United States government of waging an "imperialist war" of domination against the Vietnamese peasants. This made him a pariah with President Lyndon Johnson's administration. The major civil rights leaders openly slammed him for his war opposition, and his poor people's campaign.

The biggest reason, though, for the continued shunt of the King holiday is the holiday itself. The still widespread public perception is that the King holiday is a holiday exclusively of, by, and for blacks. The blizzard of tributes, proclamations, and speeches on King are rendered more often than not by black officials. The parades and celebrations in cities are held mostly by blacks. Most of the streets, schools, and monuments, parks, and public buildings that have been renamed after King are in black communities, and in many cases they are in the poorest of the poor black neighborhoods.

Despite the skewed public perception, and narrow racial focus of the King holiday, the civil rights movement, that King did more than any single figure to lead and inspire, was an authentic American movement. It increased civil liberties protections, expanded universal voting rights, and produced a vast array of legal, social and educational programs that permanently transformed American society and enriched the lives of millions of Americans of all races and income groups.

Yet, 21 years after Reagan expressed doubt, ambiguity, and out right hostility to King, millions still harbor the same feeling about the King holiday. And many of them have never heard of Helms.


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