U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The 2011 Ward Connerly Award for Martin Luther King, Jr. Revisionism goes to….

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.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben: I don’t have a sterling intellectual insight at this point (and I’m not sure one is needed). Rather, I’m writing to say great post! It’s great to hear some Public Enemy at USIH. – TL

  2. Ben,
    I glanced at this story while cruising through some other website (maybe the Huffpost)and thought it made perfect sense given how easily we appropriate our icons for our odd purposes. This reminds me of how every side in the debate over the Iraq War used Niebuhr or how Lincoln suddenly became a champion of ending tyranny–every where in the world!

    Johnson’s argument strikes me as similar to those that David has eviscerated in his recent post about the Tea Party and (not incidentally) in his book. We all want to claim clear moral authority and need the shoulders of ‘giants’ to stand on while we do it.

  3. I’ve been thinking about the deradicalization of King today and also the result of his canonization as one of America’s heroes. I went to Lexington’s excellent celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day today. In Arizona growing up, we never celebrated it. The prof at ASU that turned me onto black history was a college student and member of the group that advocated for the day in the state. He and his fellow activists did indeed have a very hard road to convince Arizona to venerate the day and also to convince ASU to hire faculty of color. Today he, Matthew Whitaker, runs a new center at ASU dedicated to the study of peace and justice but at the same time the state has vetoed “ethnic” studies. It’s a weird state indeed.

    See Dr. Whitaker’s conference on Barack Obama here: http://shprs.clas.asu.edu/BOAD (hmmm, I should probably post that as an announcement on the board instead of in the comments).

    One of the things that I was thinking about today was NPR’s story on King’s pacifism and non-violence (I never quite understand why folks don’t realize how radical it is to put your body in harms way and not react when someone beats you) and the film we watched on music and the Civil Rights Movement. The latter did not deradicalize King so much as make the whole CRM about King.

    I used to be a physics major and there were never whole days devoted to the country getting involved in the specialty of physics. But as historians we have whole days when the country gets involved in “our” business. It’s fascinating and challenging and sometimes frustrating and sometimes gratifying.

  4. A couple items of interest, having grown up in the civil right era.

    What was holding up the establishment of MLK holiday was that every other group would tack on to the bill for their favorite historical American to have his/her own holiday. Great Amercans all, but by the time the bill reached the President it was like adding a month or more of paid government holidays and every President including Democrat Jimmy Carter threatened to or actually vetoed it. And there were a few who opposed the holiday because they felt there were already to many federal holidays, tone deaf not racist. Then came Ronald Reagan who said he would sign it no matter how many holidays were in the bill, after the controller strike no one doubted he was capable cutting off his nose to spite his face. Congress passed a law with only MLK holiday and he signed the bill.


    I think you are misunderstanding the origins of the views on affirmative action that Wade Connerly represents, it is not historical revisionism. That is how the Civil Rights movement was sold in the working and middle class neighborhoods across the North in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It was an explanation that sat well with the 3d generation immigrant communities. While it was nothing compared to that faced by African Americans the had been the victims of discrimination too. MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, change the names to their own group, and it expressed there attitudes on their own experience.

    Not being a mind reader I am not sure on what Dr. King actually believed, but that view was attributed to him. There is a food faith belief that the philosophy expressed by Mr Connerly is in fact the views of Dr King, that these are in fact the genuine opposite of racism, and that the Left has historically revised the legacy of Dr King. The views expressed by are not Historical Revisionism but rather another thread of history out of that period.

    Of course you have a point, most people I was discussing realized that Dr. King was against the Viet Nam war and that Jeh Johnson is probably in violations of the DOD prohibition on mind altering drugs.

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