This is, of course, the day on which the nation remembers the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s important to recall that a little over a quarter century ago, when this day became a federal holiday, there was still fierce opposition to the idea of honoring King. In the Senate, that opposition was led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC). The final Senate vote on the measure to declare a federal holiday in King’s name was taken on October 19, 1983.* Helms was joined in opposing the measure by seventeen of his fellow Republicans and four Democrats:
James Abdnor (R-SD)
John East (R-NC)
James Exon (D-NE)
Jake Garn (R-UT)
Barry Goldwater (R-AZ)
Charles Grassley (R-IA)
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Chic Hecht (R-NV)
Gordon Humphrey (R-NH)
Roger Jepsen (R-IA)
James McClure (R-ID)
Frank Murkowski (R-AK)
Don Nickles (R-OK)
Larry Pressler (R-SD)
Jennings Randolph (D-WV)
Warren Rudman (R-NH)
John Stennis (D-MS)
Steve Symms (R-ID)
John Tower (R-TX)
Malcolm Wallop (R-WY)
Edward Zorinsky (D-NE)
A couple interesting notes about that list. First, two members who voted against the holiday still serve in the Senate: Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch.
Second, there are surprisingly few Senators from the South on that list. Even Strom Thurmond voted for the holiday. Only Helms, East, Stennis, and Tower among the “no” voters came from states that had joined the Confederacy; arguably Randolph and Nickles could also count as Southern. The vast majority of Southern Senators voted for the measure. And fully sixteen of the twenty-two Senators who voted against the holiday were from regions other than the South. The fiercest opposition came from the Great Plains and the West. Indeed, Arizona led the national opposition, with its Republican Governor Evan Mecham rescinding the federal holiday as his first act in office, a move that prompted a boycott movement, the relocation of Superbowl XXVII from Tempe to Pasadena, and, following continued opposition by Mecham’s successors, Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona” (1991):
Arizona was joined by a number of other states in footdragging on the holiday, including New Hampshire, Utah, and South Carolina. Virginia decided to let King share the holiday with Robert E. Lee (whose birthday falls close by); Mississippi still does this. But today, all fifty states recognize the holiday in one form or another.
We’ve come a long way since the battles over the King holiday in the 1980s and 1990s. But one of the prices of King’s transformation from a revolutionary figure to a national icon has been a deradicalization of his legacy.
Indeed, over the years, King has been repeatedly invoked in support of positions that he would have deeply disagreed with. Leading the way in this regard were conservatives who, starting in the 1980s, invoked King in opposition to affirmative action. In many ways the leading figure in doing this was Ward Connerly, who led the battle against affirmative action in the University of California system and later took his fight to other states, as well. Connerly has never ceased quoting King selectively in a desperate effort to make King into an opponent of affirmative action.
So in honor of the holiday and Ward Connerly’s leadership in this regard, I’d like to present the 2011 Ward Connerly Award for Martin Luther King, Jr. Revisionism.
This year’s award goes to Jeh Johnson (pictured above), the current General Counsel for the U.S. Department of Defense. In a speech in honor of MLK Day at the Pentagon last week, Johnson argued that, were he alive today, Dr. King would support our nation’s current wars (h/t Salon.com):
I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Luckily, I happen to have Martin Luther King right here…
* The Senate’s own online database of votes doesn’t go back to the 1980s, so for this roll-call, you’ll need to descend behind the paywall of the New York Times.