Memory  /  Book Excerpt

Fighting to Desegregate the American Calendar

As a versatile but complex hero, King led a life open to interpretation by politicians and activists of all types who fiercely debated his legacy.

As the morticians sanitized King’s death, politicians sanitized his life. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for Palm Sunday, April 7, and four days after King’s assassination, Representative John Conyers introduced legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives to create a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. In doing so, Conyers became a memorial entrepreneur. And, in keeping with U.S. tradition, Conyers called for King’s birthday, not the more recent and emotionally charged date of the assassination, to host the holiday.

What did Conyers hope to achieve? An African American Democrat from Detroit, Conyers believed that a federal holiday in King’s name would be the greatest honor the nation could bestow. He telephoned Coretta Scott King and requested her approval (which she gave) before he presented the legislation. On the same day, Senator Edward Brooke, an African American Republican from Massachusetts, introduced a joint resolution to the Senate to designate King’s birthday a memorial day. Though he did not seek a federal holiday, Brooke proposed an “annual occasion” with ceremonies, prayers, and a presidential proclamation to honor King. He condemned the uprisings that followed King’s murder as “misguided and reckless” and instead suggested that “churches … schools and homes” were the appropriate places to pay tribute. These memorial gestures by Conyers and Brooke symbolized two divergent paths to honor King: one, an annual paid federal holiday; the other, an unpaid cultural/memorial tribute.

Conyers did not merely admire King as a man. Conyers was a memorial entrepreneur who sought to infuse America’s collective memory with the history of Black life. And King’s birthday offered the most logical anniversary to promote that goal. Commemorating his death would have signaled that the realization of King’s dream remained distant. African Americans (but not only they) exerted enormous pressure on Congress to designate King Day, and their ultimate success demonstrated a newfound political power. Affixing King’s name to the holiday ensured that it became indisputably connected to African American history. Yet to win the holiday, they had to persuade a skeptical, nearly all white, Congress to approve the memorial. To achieve a consensus, they downplayed controversial aspects of King’s legacy and emphasized national unity and reconciliation. This approval process contributed to the deradicalization of King’s legacy. Further, Congress proved receptive to King’s role as an individual, not necessarily the fact of his being part of a broader movement.