Every January since 1986, when the Martin Luther King Holiday Act went into effect, Americans have taken a day off to ski and shop. Protesters usually make the news as well, as they try to carry on King’s unfinished business of fighting poverty and discrimination. Demonstrators invoked King’s name during this year’s King Day protests against police violence in Ferguson, Cleveland, and New York. The tension between these two groups serves as a reminder that King’s legacy since his death has been a contentious one. Back in 1986, enactment of the holiday appeared to represent a national agreement to accept King’s vision of justice and reconciliation. Actually, it was a byproduct of continuing battle over that vision.
Serious congressional debate on the King holiday began in 1979. Sponsors believed the holiday bill was so popular that it could pass under a suspension of rules – a parliamentary device for expediting uncontroversial legislation. But in November 1979, the pro-holiday majority of 252 yes votes – to 133 no votes – fell short of the two-thirds necessary under the suspension of rules. Supporters were forced to withdraw their bill.
Despite the 1980 elections, which gave an increasingly conservative Republican Party control of the Senate and the White House, hopes for a King holiday stayed alive. Some legacies of the civil rights movement had gained broad acceptance, after all. In 1982, Congress extended and strengthened the Voting Rights Act, for example, overturning the Supreme Court’s attempt to weaken the Act in Mobile v. Bolden (1980). The holiday bill gained momentum partly because the bill’s opponents were so uninspiring: they complained that a holiday would force employers to pay employees to do nothing all day, when the economy was already suffering from years of stagnation. They said that memories of King’s movement were still too fresh for the nation to judge his historical significance. Did King really rise to the level of George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and Jesus of Nazareth? (Those three were the only individuals with national holidays.) Many pointed out that there was still no national holiday – only state ones – for Abraham Lincoln, or other established national martyrs.
Such concerns failed to revive passionate opposition to King, and instead attempts to generate anti-holiday enthusiasm backfired. In debates on the holiday, Congressmen John Ashbrook, Republican of rural Ohio, and Larry McDonald, Democrat from the suburbs of Atlanta, employed tactics of character assassination and guilt-by-association against the civil rights leader, mainly by linking him to communism. Ashbrook revived his crusade from the 1960s, when he had tried to establish himself as King’s most determined enemy in Congress. Dusting off his thirteen-page report on King, published in the Congressional Record in October 1967, Ashbrook claimed once again to prove that King was doing the work of the communists all along, stirring up racial discontent and provoking violence. He and McDonald repeated the argument that Ashbrook had made three days before King died in April 1968: “He exhorts others to civil disobedience and then tries to evade the blame himself when the logical result of this disobedience follows: rioting…. Having set a pattern of illegal conduct himself…it comes as no surprise when his nonviolent followers turned violent.”
Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina took up the anti-communist torch of Ashbrook and McDonald in the final days of the Senate battle in 1983. But Helms hedged: “There is no evidence that King himself was a member of the CPUSA [Communist Party of the U.S.A.] or that he was a rigorous adherent of academic Marxist ideology or of the Communist party line. Nevertheless, he was warned about his associations with known Communists.” Helms admitted he was fighting a “losing cause.”
Just as the reckless acts of southern segregationists had increased sympathy for civil rights protesters during the 1960s, such paranoid-sounding logic tainted all attempts to advance more moderate objections to the King holiday in the 1980s. Both houses passed the Holiday overwhelmingly, supported in the House by such Republicans as Dan Coats, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and Jack Kemp. (Jim Jeffords, Trent Lott, John McCain, and Ron Paul voted no.) Among Senate highlights were votes in favor of the holiday from both Senators from each of four deep south states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Even Strom Thurmond eventually voted “aye.” Although President Ronald Reagan had initially opposed the King holiday, he had come around to the idea, and he signed it into law on November 2, 1983.
But the establishment of a legal holiday honoring Dr. King was only one ending to the story. Conservatives who supported Ashbrook wanted a different ending. After Ashbrook died in 1982, they honored him by founding the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. The Center maintains an active program of internships, classes, and lectures. President Reagan, according to the center’s website, “personally dedicated the Center on May 9, 1983.” Speakers at the Ashbrook Center’s annual fund-raising dinner have included Dick Cheney, Margaret Thatcher, Charlton Heston, Henry Kissinger, Clarence Thomas, Bill Kristol, Benjamin Netanyahu, Karl Rove, Glenn Beck, John Boehner, and Mitt Romney. Thus the belligerents from the King holiday battle set the stage for future conflict over Martin Luther King’s meaning as a historical symbol.