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Remembering Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - The Struggle for the Federal Holiday Recognized Today

Today is the federal holiday recognizing the January 15, 1929 birthdate of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that was established 36 years ago on January 20, 1986. Given the current distasteful efforts and the presumed vote that will occur tomorrow for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Bill 2021 (H.R. 4) that has been sitting in the Senate since 9/14/21, two (2) Senate actors WV's Joe Manchin (Macho) & AZ's Krysten Sinema (Cinema) having refused to act on changing the filibuster (voting rules within the Senate) that likely will result in both voting NO for the bill-- going on record with their votes, we can recall the efforts related to how today's recognition of Dr. King, Jr. became a federal holiday, a bill passed after 17 years of galvanizing the public for it to happen.

Rep. John Conyers introduced the first motion to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday in 1968, just four days after King’s assassination in Memphis. It took another 11 years to the federal holiday to come up for a vote on the House of Representative’s floor in 1979. The bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass, but it fell five votes short with a vote of 252 to 133. Doing the math, 385 voted out of a congress (House and Senate) comprised of 535 elected individuals, 150 did not vote yes or no. Then president, Jimmy Carter supported the bill but it did not matter. In 1981, musician Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” to promote the passage of the bill for the federal holiday. The King Center kept up its efforts. It organized a March on Washington that included an estimated 500,000 people. Coretta Scott King, along with Stevie Wonder, presented a petition signed by 6 million people to then House leader Tip O’Neill. Still, the bill laid dormant without enough support for it to call for a vote again.

Dr. King addressing more than 500,000 at the 1963 March on Washington.

The House of Representatives took up the bill again in 1983 and it passed by 53 votes. In the Senate, like now, there was contention. Known racist antagonist Jesse Helms of North Carolina openly opposing it starting with a filibuster, followed by his presenting a 400-page file that accused Dr. King of being a communist. Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts criticized Helms and Daniel Moynihan of New York called the document “filth” and threw it on the Senate floor. There was a vote with the bill passing the Senate by 12 votes—even South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond voted in favor of the King holiday (in 2003, it was acknowledged by the Thurmond family that Thurmond was the father of Essie-Mae Washington-Williams, a retired LA teacher who had an African-American mother).

Ronald Reagan, president in 1983 signed the bill into law. It took until 2000, for the holiday to be recognized by all 50 states in the US. John McCain, GOP Senator of Arizona was part of a strong resistance against the bill in 1990 with boycotts against the state of Arizona underway. The bill was defeated in AZ and the NFL announced it was moving the 1993 Super Bowl from AZ to CA. In 1992, AZ approved the bill. In 2022, Arizona's freshman senator Sinema, who was presumed to replace the more sensible and more balanced McCain who remained in office until his death in 2018, has acted against the current H.R. 4 John Lewis Voting Advancement Bill by upstaging President Joe Biden last week as he was arriving to speak to Democratic senators by denouncing changes to the filibuster on the Senate floor. Democrats in Arizona have since taken to denouncing her with challengers preparing to run against her in 2024.

South Carolina was one of the last states to approve MLK Day as a federal holiday after fighting against it because it did not want it to be a paid holiday for state employees. The state’s governor had tried to link the holiday to a commitment to allow the state house to fly the Confederate battle flag. Instead, the governor signed a bill that approved the King holiday along with a Confederate Memorial Day celebrated in May. Confederate Memorial Day is a statutory holiday in Alabama on the fourth Monday in April, in Mississippi on the final Monday in April, and in South Carolina on May 10. In all of these states, state offices are closed on this day. In 2021, all witnessed how the Confederate flag was a significant symbol at the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington DC at the US Capitol.

The history of the efforts of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose most widely known efforts -- besides the "I Have a Dream" speech delivered in Washington DC in 1963 during the first March on Washington associated with economic justice and an end to racism in the US-- was his full court press pushing the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Some, to this day state it is what cost Johnson to withdraw from the 1968 election after he lost the backing of Southern representatives as a result of his action in 1965 that expanded voting rights to Black people all over the nation. The scuttling of numerous provisions of the 1965 legislation occurred in 2013 when the Supreme Court of the United States issued one of the most consequential rulings in a generation in a case called Shelby county v Holder. In a 5-4 vote, the court struck down a formula at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, that required certain states and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get changes cleared by the federal government before they went into effect. In 2021, 19 states enacted 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote. At the same time, between January 1 and September 27, at least 25 states enacted 62 laws with provisions that expand voting access.

But this expansive legislation does not balance the scales. The states that have enacted restrictive laws tend to be ones in which voting is already relatively difficult, while the states that have enacted expansive laws tend to have relatively more accessible voting processes. In other words, access to the right to vote increasingly depends on the state in which a voter happens to reside (Brennan Center for Justice, Voting Laws Roundup, 10/4/21).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the signing in 1964 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Today, we honor the memory of a human being who felt intensely for his community and for all in the world whose rights to freedom, justice and the treatment of one another that is reflected in scripture was not present and was not acknowledged, specifically by men of assumed power and privilege. Such had been demonstrated to Dr. King in his studies of the life of the renown Mahatma Gandhi who led the people of India to freedom from the tyranny of Britain through non-violent principles. Like MLK, Jr., Gandhi was martyred as a result of his committed actions to bring relief from strife to the people. Gandhi's method was to teach peace, practice tolerance and acknowledge the Creator as a means by which people of all kinds (religion and caste) could live together. Dr. King felt similarly for all people irrespective of color, creed and religion in America.

May Allah (God) be pleased with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was martyred on April 4, 1968 while in Memphis in support of striking black sanitation workers, whose rights for safety and a fair wage were being ignored. He stood for justice! We have volumes of encouraging words that from 1955 to 1968 serve as evidence of the struggle he was relentlessly engaged in for the freedom of Black people from many injustices that continue to exist today (or for some have not really changed much). These words are a call to continuous activism. The injustices and strife that impact all of America, but are targeted primarily against people of color remain. Dr. King's struggles were not in vain. They are his legacy and that of his family..

The Holy Quran, chapter and verse 2:154 conveys to all Mankind:

“Do not say regarding those who are slain in the path of God that they are dead; rather they are alive but you are not aware.”

The struggles continue.


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