Editorial: King Day holiday marched a fractious path

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at a peace in New York City. Photo Credit: AP, 1967

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The nation is observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day with so little controversy today that it's possible to forget the titanic political struggle it took to create the federal holiday and win its recognition in all 50 states.

King was shot and killed in 1968, 15 years before the holiday was established in 1983. But even then the passion aroused by the movement he led still burned hot for some in Congress. The first bill to honor his birthday was introduced in the House days after his death, but it was 11 years before it came up for a vote. It took four more years, a march on Washington and a national petition drive to finally win House approval.

The battle in the Senate was shorter but still acrimonious. The opposition was led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who filibustered to block passage of the bill. He also distributed 300 pages of documents to his colleagues in a scurrilous attempt to prove King was a communist.

Incensed, New York's Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw the documents he branded "a packet of filth" to the Senate floor and stomped on it for good measure. The bill passed by 12 votes. President Ronald Reagan signed it into law, and the holiday was celebrated for the first time in 1986.

At that point, 17 states had adopted the holiday. Others followed suit but there were stubborn holdouts, chief among them Arizona. The battle there came to a head in 1990 when the holiday was put before voters in a referendum. Entertainers were boycotting the state and the NFL threatened to move Super Bowl XXVII out of the state if the holiday was rejected. It was, and the game was moved to California. Arizona approved the holiday in a 1992 referendum and, in 1999, so did New Hampshire, the last holdout.

Little comes easy in our fractious democracy, but we have a proud history of ultimately doing the right thing that should be celebrated today.

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