Memory  /  Origin Story

A Case of the Mondays

The beginning of the fight for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

These hearings, on March 27 and June 21, 1979, provided the stage to debate King’s historic reputation, and holiday proponents sought to shape a new consensus about him. To do this, they attempted to portray King as a leader who forced the nation to live up to its highest ideals. Bayh acknowledged that a holiday would not be a “panacea for the nation’s ills,” but that the time had come to appreciate that a “black citizen has made a significant enough contribution to society to be recognized as a national holiday figure.” One way of “recognizing full citizenship” of the African American community was a holiday, and Bayh further noted the need for minority youth to have role models so they can live “within the system.” This hope, that the holiday would encourage minority youth to live within the system, exhibited a desire to fortify, not change, the political system. On the Senate Judiciary Committee, a majority favored the holiday because King’s “unique accomplishments” made him worthy of the honor. His legacy was such “that persons of all colors can strive to attain the universal goals of freedom and equality,” and setting aside a day to honor him would publicize the cause of racial justice. This position reaffirmed the politicians’ faith in American democracy and belief that since legal obstacles to racial integration had been removed, African Americans could attain freedom and equality—if they strived.

The committee’s majority agreed that King’s nonviolent method “strengthened the American ideal of government responsive to its people” and proved the nation’s ability to correct inequities within a democratic framework. This rationale paralleled civil rights memorialization that displays the nation at its mythical best, having corrected an injustice in response to minority concerns. Similarly, the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service believed a holiday would be an “appropriate testimonial to an extraordinary individual” that would “underscore the nation’s continuing commitment to alleviate the invidious effects of discrimination and poverty.” Here the committee at least acknowledged King’s commitment to remediating poverty even if it overestimated the nation’s commitment.

Unanimous support remained elusive on the Judiciary Committee. Four Republican senators—arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond (South Carolina), Paul Laxalt (Nevada), Orrin Hatch (Utah), and Alan Simpson (Wyoming)—dissented from the majority. Thurmond had an infamous history of opposing racial integration. He ran as the pro-segregation States’ Rights Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1948 and continued to frustrate civil rights initiatives throughout his career.