It’s time to Break It Down!
Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Over the years, I’ve written a post about Dr. King, the holiday, and how it came to pass. Today, I am again revisiting a post I initially wrote and posted Wednesday, January 19, 2011, and that I reprised January 18, 2017, January 17, 2018, and again, January 23, 2019, examining the advent of the King Holiday. It’s been 36 years since the initial observance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday (MLK DAY), and 39 years since President Reagan signed the MLK, Jr. Holiday bill into law. Contemporary events continue to remind us that now is an apt time to look into the rearview mirror of time.
After over three decades of inculcation into the very fabric of our society, it may be largely forgotten that the conceptualization, submission and continual resubmission of the idea, the enactment, and the gradual national observance, was not the product of universal acceptance of a grand and enlightened concept, but rather, was emblematic of the civil rights struggle itself; steeped in controversy, and the eventual victory of a relentless movement to achieve richly deserved, and long overdue social justice.
Several members of Congress, a number of states, and even a President, using a host of creative means, sought to undermine, outmaneuver, sabotage, subvert, and otherwise derail the efforts of the measure’s proponents. Ultimately, the movement was consolidated, snowballed, and would simply not be thwarted.
The effort to create a King Holiday was started by U.S. Representative John Conyers, Michigan, shortly after Dr. King’s death, in the spring of 1968. It was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1979, but fell 5 votes short of the number needed for passage in the Lower Chamber.
High profile opponents to the measure included Senator Jesse Helms, NC, Senator John McCain, AZ, and President Ronald Reagan. Both Senators voted against the bill, and Senator McCain publicly supported Arizona Governor Evan Mecham for his rescission of MLK Day as a State Holiday in Arizona. The campaign however, reached a critical mass in the early 1980’s. Spurred on by Stevie Wonder penning a song in King’s honor called, “Happy Birthday,” a petition drive to support the campaign would attract over 6 million signatures. It has been called the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. History.
Buttressed by what had become a wildly successful public campaign, Congress soon followed suit. The proposal passed in the House by a vote of 338-90, and in the Upper Chamber by a vote of 78-22. Given the dimensions of this overwhelming support, in the form of bicameral veto-proof votes, President Reagan signed the provision November 2, 1983, and it became Federal Law. The first observance under the new law took place January 20, 1986, rather than on January 15th, Dr. King’s birthday. A compromise in the legislation specified that the observance take place on the Third Monday in January, consistent with prior legislation (Uniform Monday Holiday Act).
Of course, that was not the end of the story. It would take more than 30 years after Dr. King’s death before the Holiday was fully adopted and observed in all 50 states. Illinois holds the distinction of being the first State to adopt MLK Day as a State Holiday, having done so in 1973. Twenty years later, in 1993, for the first time, some form of MLK Day was held in each of the 50 States.
It was not until 2000 that South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges signed a bill to make MLK Day a paid holiday for State employees; giving the Palmetto State the dubious distinction of being the last of the 50 States to do so. However, Mississippi also sets itself apart by designating the Third Monday in January as a shared Holiday that honors the memory of Robert E. Lee and Dr. King…two fine southern gentlemen.
Last summer after entertaining a whirlwind, on again off again, job offer at UNC, journalist, McArthur Fellow, Pulitzer Prize winner, and UNC alum Nikole Hannah-Jones opted to choose Howard University as her next employer, over UNC. Ms. Hannah-Jones, who gained notoriety for her work on the 1619 Project, has become a lightning rod for discourse around issues of civil rights, and the much-ballyhooed topic known as Critical Race Theory, #CRT.
This week, NH-J was invited to give an MLK speech on Monday. She discovered that a few members of the group hosting her wrote and subsequently leaked emails opposing her giving the speech. Those who opposed her felt it dishonored Dr. King to do so and characterized her as a “discredited activist” “unworthy of such association with King.”
This insight motivated her to call an audible. She scrapped her original speech and spent the first half of her speech reading excerpts from several of Dr. King’s speeches…without revealing that they were his words. She subbed BLACK for Negro, to avoid dating the material and giving away the fact that it was from over half a century ago. Literally, that’s all it took to transport to 2022.
Here is some of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 2022 MLK, Jr. Day speech:
“It was in the year 1619 that the first BLACK slave was brought to the shores of this nation. They were brought here from the soils of Africa and unlike the Pilgrim fathers who landed here at Plymouth a year later, they were brought here against their will…”
“White Americans must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society…The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and racism…”
“The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power. A nation that continues year after year to spend more $ on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
“The crowning achievement in hypocrisy must go to those staunch Republicans and Democrats of the Midwest and West who were given land by our government when they came here as immigrants from Europe. They were given education through the land grant colleges…”
“These are the same people that now say to black people, whose ancestors were brought to this country in chains and who were emancipated in 1863 without being given land to cultivate or bread to eat; that they must pull themselves up by their own bootstraps…”
“What they truly advocate is Socialism for the rich and Capitalism for the poor… “We know full well that racism is still that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.”
“Ever since the birth of our nation, White America has had a Schizophrenic personality on the ? of race, she has been torn between selves. A self in which she proudly professes the great principle of democracy and a self in which she madly practices the antithesis of democracy.”
“The fact is, there has never been a single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for Black people.”
“The step backwards has a new name today, it is called the white backlash, but the white backlash is nothing new. It is the surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there…”
“The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.”
“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance…with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that BLACK AMERICANS HAVE come far enough.”
“…for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country, even today, is freedom and equality and that racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.”
“If America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”
“Why do white people seem to find it so difficult to understand that the Black people are sick and tired of having reluctantly parceled out to THEM those rights and privileges which all others receive upon birth or entry in America?”
“I never cease to wonder at the amazing presumption of much of white society, assuming that they have the right to bargain with the BLACK for their freedom…”
Oh, the uncomfortable silence as I read Dr. King’s words at a commemoration of Dr. King’s life when people had no idea that these were his words. When I revealed that everything I said to that point was taken from his speeches between ’56 and 67… Can you say SHOOK!
Then I read all the names that white Americans called King: charlatan, demagogue, communist, traitor — and brought out the polling showing more than three-quarters of Americans opposed King at his death while 94 percent approve of him now.
I left them with this: People who oppose today what he stood for back then do not get to be the arbiters of his legacy. The real Dr. King cannot be commodified, homogenized, and white-washed and whatever side you stand on TODAY is the side you would have been back then.
In fact, most white Americans in 1963 opposed the March on Washington where Dr. King gave the “I Have A Dream Speech” with that one line that people oppose to anti-racism like to trot out against those working for racial justice.
When the speech was over, Father Pfleger, who had been cheering me on from the crowd, whispered in my ear: That’s what you call the “You Gone Learn Today” speech and I . Because, yeah.
“This is why the 1619 Project exists. This is why the decades of scholarship that undergirds the 1619 Project exists. Because if we do nothing, they will co-opt our history and use it against us.”
Dr. King was a radical critic of racism, capitalism and militarism. He didn’t die. He was assassinated. And many, including Regan, fought the national holiday we’re now commemorating. “If you haven’t read, in entirety, his speeches, you’ve been miseducated & I hope that you will.”
As it was in 1622, 1722, 1822, 1922, and yeah, remains in 2022… MLK, Jr.: Quotes You Don’t Remember…Or Perhaps Never Heard (Relayed by Nikole Hannah-Jones).
I’m done; holla back!