How We Got Martin Luther King Day

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Twenty-nine years ago, then-congressman Newt Gingrich reversed himself in a way that helped ensure passage of legislation that made the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Until the summer of 1983, a majority of Republicans in the House had opposed the efforts, pushed mostly by the Congressional Black Caucus, to honor King.

That year, there was a particular push by Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, who hoped to mark the 15th anniversary of King's assassination with the bill he had faithfully introduced in each session of Congress since 1968. Ostensibly, GOP opposition concerned the federal budget, and a view that the federal bureaucracy did not need another paid holiday. Many Democrats suspected other reasons, but even those members who did not ascribe racist views to their Republican colleagues believed they were being insensitive to the meaning of the proposed new holiday.

"I never viewed it as an isolated piece of legislation to honor one man," Conyers told his colleagues. "Rather, I have always viewed it as an indication of the commitment of the House and the nation to the dream of Dr. King. When we pass this legislation, we should signal our commitment to the realization of full employment, world peace, and freedom for all."

Democrats were dismayed, in particular, by the resistance of Republicans they believed should have known better. Among them: Jack Kemp, who loathed racism and who conveyed these sentiments in public and private; Dan Lungren, a Southern California conservative who clearly understood the important symbolism of Conyers' bill; and Newt Gingrich, a firebrand who was always talking about expanding his party's demographic reach.

Gradually, the limitations of their objectives became apparent to the recalcitrant Republicans. Lungren was one of the first. After voting against the holiday, he went home and told his wife that he thought he had done "the wrong thing." She advised him to rectify it.

Lungren shared his feelings with Kemp, who was having misgivings of his own. A native Californian, Kemp had played professional football for a dozen years, and had formed friendships with African American teammates that pre-dated -- and superseded -- politics. Kemp heard from these old friends, who were dismayed by his opposition to a bill honoring the nation's most iconic civil rights leader.

Lungren and Kemp discussed their change of heart with Newt Gingrich, who suggested they go see John Conyers. It was more than a courtesy call. These influential Republicans had decided switched sides. They asked the Michigan Democrat how they could help him pass his bill. Conyers' advice was that they ought to speak in favor of it on the House floor.

And so, on August 2, 1983, Jack Kemp, fiscal conservative and former quarterback, stood in the well of the House and made an eloquent oration. "I have changed my position on this vote," he said, "because I really think that the American Revolution will not be complete until we commemorate the civil rights revolution and guarantee those basic declarations of human rights for all Americans and remove those barriers that stand in the way of people being what they were meant to be."

Kemp, like Lungren, made it a point that day to proclaim that King hadn't liberated black Americans, he'd liberated all Americans. Whites, because of the binding nature of their thinking, had been liberated most of all.

"I want my party to stand for that," said Kemp, who spoke without notes. "If we lose sight of the fact that the Republican Party was founded by Mr. Lincoln as a party of civil rights, freedom, and hope, and opportunity, and dreams, and a place where all people could be free -- if we turn our backs we are not going to the be the party of human dignity we want, as Republicans, to be known for."

That tide had been turned, and after House Speaker Tip O'Neill personally called for the vote, Conyers' legislation sailed through on a tally of 338-90. In the Senate, a majority of Republicans joined a solid bloc of Democrats, and the bill was sent to the White House, where President Reagan signed it into law on November 2, 1983.

"Dr. King had awakened something strong and true," Reagan said that day, "a sense that true justice must be colorblind." The president approvingly quoted King that, as regards white and black Americans, "Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."



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