Conyers Recalls Fight for King Holiday

Posted January 15, 2008 at 4:18pm

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) was merely a second-term Congressman in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And although Conyers had nowhere near as much power then as he does now as the second-longest serving Member of the House, he wasted no time in trying to commemorate his hero.

On April 8, 1968, just four days after King was killed in Memphis, Tenn., Conyers introduced a bill to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday.

That began a 15-year legislative push — a duration that might surprise those who have celebrated the King holiday their entire adult lives and will do so again on Monday.

“After Dr. King was assassinated, I thought, ‘What can I do to honor this man?’” Conyers said Monday at a Woodrow Wilson Center event on the efforts for the holiday. “The greatest thing I could think of was for Dr. King to have a holiday celebrating his birth.

“I called [King’s wife] Coretta Scott King, asked her permission and introduced the bill four days after he was assassinated.”

Conyers said he knew he was in for a battle.

“As much as you and I may have thought about Martin King, there were people saying that by no means could King have won a popular ballot across the country to have a legal holiday,” Conyers said. “No. 1, he was an African-American, and No. 2, he opposed his government with great vigor whenever he felt like it, and came out against the Vietnam War.

“So this guy is, with regard to many, considered an enemy of the country. How in the heck is he going to get a holiday?”

But King was a hero to Conyers, who said he is the only political candidate King ever endorsed. The endorsement helped Conyers to a 108-vote victory in the 1964 primary for the Congressional seat he ended up winning. Rosa Parks also worked on Conyers’ campaign.

King’s endorsement “was not of small importance,” Conyers said. “If not for King, I would probably be practicing law or be a judge right now.”

In Congress instead, Conyers was a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, which was created in 1971 and organized petition drives and demonstrations in support of the holiday.

Even so, the legislation received tepid support at first.

In the 93rd Congress (1973-74), Conyers introduced five King-related bills, for either a national holiday or commemorative day. But he gathered only 71 House co-sponsors for those bills, according to Don Wolfensberger, a former staff director of the House Rules Committee who runs the Wilson Center’s Congress Project and is a Roll Call contributing writer.

Conyers’ Senate counterpart from the beginning was Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), who at the time was the only black in that chamber. Brooke’s bill, which provided only for a national commemorative day and not a federal holiday, received 57 co-sponsors in 1978, according to Wolfensberger.

But even with Jimmy Carter in the White House after eight years of Republican rule, no hearings were held on a King holiday bill through 1978.

Opponents of the bill made two arguments: that King was not the honorable figure he was being made out to be, and that another federal holiday would harm the economy.

“We had enough wild men in both bodies that you’d never know what in the world they were going to use for an excuse to oppose King,” Conyers said. “There were plenty of insinuations that he was connected with communists and radical groups and that [a holiday] would be totally inappropriate.

“The other more mechanical argument was that this holiday would cost a bundle, and why disrupt the work force, and all of that.”

But Conyers and other supporters pressed on in 1979, using the 50th anniversary of King’s birth to make a renewed push for the holiday.

Finally, Conyers’ bill for a federal holiday received a vote on Nov. 13, 1979. With Conyers on the House floor calling for Congress to “make the most positive statement it can that the sectional and racial chapter of America’s history has been closed forever,” his bill received 252 votes — a strong majority but five votes short of the two-thirds needed for passage under a suspension of the rules.

The bill received no action in the following Congress, but in 1983 momentum gathered again. It was the 15th anniversary of King’s death, and his legacy foundation organized a successful conference celebrating the 19th anniversary of the March on Washington. Stevie Wonder was performing the song “Happy Birthday” in support of the holiday.

Ironically, after all of Conyers’ work, it was a fellow CBC member, then-Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.), who wound up writing the King bill that was signed into law. Hall persuaded Conyers to drop his requirement that the holiday be on King’s true birthday — a stipulation that might have caused employment headaches because the holiday would fall on a different day each year. Instead, the bill made the holiday the third Monday in January.

Hall’s bill passed overwhelmingly, 338-90, on Aug. 2, 1983. The Senate, which had lagged behind the House through the entire process, followed with passage by a margin of 78-22 in October — with Senators, according to Conyers, “making longer and more effusive speeches about the legacy of Martin Luther King than we did in the House.”

It had taken 15 years, but on Nov. 2, 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 98-144, making the third Monday of each January the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.

Conyers recalled speaking to reporters after Congress passed the bill.

“They said, ‘Conyers, what took so long? Everybody has supported this bill for so long,’” he said.

“I tell you, if I ever wanted to land a haymaker …” he said with a smile. “They didn’t understand how hard we had worked.”