History of King holiday all but forgotten 25 years later

OPINION - The fight for a King national holiday has been bitter, contentious, and controversial from the first moment it was introduced...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Monday, January 17 marks the 25th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Day national holiday. President Obama and other administration officials have picked up on the call made repeatedly by the King family and civil rights and social service organizations for the day to be not just about celebration, pageantry, and parades, but a day of service.

Obama’s “King initiative” for a day of service puts White House muscle behind the true meaning and spirit of the day and King’s life and work. Polls show that a majority of Americans as individuals plan to observe the King holiday in some way.

However, the King holiday is still not the universally observed federal holiday that it could or should be. For the past few years the BNA, an Arlington, Virginia based business and information survey and print service, has taken an annual survey of businesses and governmental agencies to see who is and isn’t celebrating observance of Martin Luther King Day.

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And each year the results have shown the same disturbing thing. The King holiday is still at or near the bottom of the least celebrated national holidays. According to the BNA survey only one in three in ten employers (30 percent) will give all or most workers a paid holiday on Martin Luther Kind Day. In other words, the King holiday is still ignored by the majority of American businesses, the majority of organizations with a strong labor union presence and a fair number of municipalities.

It gets worse. Not only has there been only marginal and incremental increases in the number of businesses that officially acknowledge Martin Luther King Day in the past five years, but the number that do acknowledge it have actually dropped from the all-time high of 33 percent of businesses that gave employees the day off in 2008.

The employers and some municipalities that ignore the King holiday chalk up the failure to observe the day as simply a matter of cost, time and labor drain, instead of disrespect or any lack of appreciation for King. They argue they simply can’t afford to shut down. The argument makes some sense in the case of small to medium-sized businesses. And with the recession still slamming that segment of American industry and many governmental agencies hard, cost is a real issue and concern. But that’s not the whole answer as to why the King holiday is still shunned by many Americans.

The fight for a King national holiday has been bitter, contentious and controversial from the first moment that Michigan Democrat John Conyers introduced a Martin Luther King Day bill in Congress immediately after King’s assassination in April, 1968. It took more than a decade for the bill to finally come to a vote in 1979. It failed, coming within five votes of passage. It took four more years of fierce battles in Congress, mass marches, demonstrations and countless petitions to get lawmakers to move on the legislation again.

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Arch conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms led the charge against the King holiday bill and questioned whether King was important enough to receive such an honor. He criticized King’s opposition to the Vietnam war and repeatedly slurred him as an agitator, Communist, and, of course, unpatriotic. Then President Ronald Reagan also vehemently opposed the holiday, citing cost concerns. Reagan grudgingly signed the King bill into law in 1983 only after Congress passed it with an overwhelming veto-proof majority (338 to 90 in the House of Representatives and 78 to 22 in the Senate).

It took another three years before the first Martin Luther King Day was officially observed. It would take even more bitter fights over the next quarter century before die hard states such as Arizona, New Hampshire and Utah finally came on board and officially recognized the holiday.

But even that hasn’t ended the controversy and the infighting over the King holiday. The latest ploy to trivialize the accomplishments of King and the holiday is the weather. Some school districts in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia say that they will hold classes on King holiday to make up for the school time lost because of the recent record snowfall in those states. The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as well as other civil rights leaders, have loudly protested this latest insult to King. Sharpton went further and urged parents to not only keep their children at home on Martin Luther King Day, but to use the day as a teaching not moment buy day to educate them about the enduring significance of the civil rights movement to their lives today.

The good thing is that millions will celebrate and perform service on Martin Luther King Day. That’s what the day should be about. Those that continue to ignore the day should get that message too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on ktym.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson