The Martin Luther King Jr. Day Debate

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day, a federal holiday to be celebrated on June 19th to mark the freeing of the last slaves in Galveston, Texas. The legislation had a fairly easy passage once Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) dropped his objection to the creation of another federal holiday. The Senate passed unanimously and the House followed 415-14. This marks the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the debate on that one was considerably greater.

Martin Luther King Jr. - Wikipedia

The first proposal for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day came right after his assassination, when it was introduced by John Conyers (D-Mich.), but King was a bit too immediate of a figure for there to be a quick consensus around this idea, so support grew during the 1970s and several states enacted their own Martin Luther King Jr. days. In January 1979, President Jimmy Carter announced his support for the new holiday and on November 13th, an MLK Day bill failed by five votes, 252-133, as it was under suspension of the rules, which requires 2/3’s vote for passage.  On December 5th, Congress agreed to a substitute amendment from Robin Beard (R-Tenn.) that made the third Sunday of each year as Martin Luther King Jr. Day on a 207-191 vote, but its sponsors pulled the bill in protest of the change as the day would be unpaid.

In 1983, Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.) brought the measure forth again in the House, and the debate began. The list of people who spoke in favor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the House is too great to individually cover all of their views in this post, but I will list who they were:

Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), Katie Hall (D-Ind.), Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Joseph P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.), Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.), Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.), Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.), Sala Burton (D-Calif.), Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.), Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), William Clay (D-Mo.), Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.), Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.), Silvio Conte (R-Mass.), Carroll Hubbard (D-Ky.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), Major Owens (D-N.Y.), Jim Moody (D-Wis.), Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.), Robin Tallon (D-S.C.), Ed Bethune (R-Ark.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), George Crockett (D-Mich.), Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), Bill Alexander (D-Ark.), James Courter (R-N.J.) (although he protested suspension of the rules), Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), William Ford (D-Mich.), Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.), Thomas Foglietta (D-Penn.), Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Hamilton Fish IV (R-N.Y.), George Gekas (R-Penn.), Jim Slattery (D-Kan.), Delegate Ron De Lugo (D-Virgin Islands), Lou Stokes (D-Ohio), Buddy Roemer (D-La.), William Gray (D-Penn.), Jim Wright (D-Tex.), Julian Dixon (D-Calif.), Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), Raymond McGrath (R-N.Y.), Robert Borski (D-Penn.), Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), William Coyne (D-Penn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tom Luken (D-Ohio), Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.), Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), Richard Lehman (D-Calif.), William Ratchford (D-Conn.), Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.), Bob Matsui (D-Calif.), Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), George Brown (D-Calif.), Paul Simon (D-Ill.), and Brian Donnelly (D-Mass.).

Gus Savage (D-Ill.) and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) simply stated on the floor of the House their support for the legislation.

Notable King support speeches were delivered by:

Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) – Brother of NAACP chief lobbyist Clarence Mitchell Jr., talked about his experience as a young man, stating he held older blacks in contempt for being so debased by the Jim Crow system and considered himself a militant who wanted armed warfare. But, he stated that King showed him a better way through nonviolence and the employment of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Mitchell dismissed Rep. William Dannemeyer’s concerns about cost.

Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.) – The original author of the legislation making Martin Luther King Jr. a Monday holiday, commended Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.) for her sponsorship.

Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) – Stated reasons for supporting Martin Luther King Jr. Day as not only his civil rights activism but his activism on behalf of all poor people.

Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.) – Used his speech in support of MLK Day to attack the Reagan Administration for policies he regarded as setbacks to civil rights, which he includes permitting private religious schools to maintain tax-exempt status despite racially discriminatory policies and his policies of cutting taxes and the domestic budget.

William Clay (D-Mo.) – Spoke positively of racial and economic justice that MLK called for and used this speech to condemn the policies of the Reagan Administration, which he called “divisive and oppressive”.

Ed Bethune (R-Ark.) – Former FBI agent, stated his support for MLK Day in response to Larry McDonald’s (D-Ga.) support of the FBI treatment of King, considered this day overdue and that black children, as do children of other racial groups, need public figures to look up to.

Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) – Spoke in support as someone who had changed their mind after voting against the 1979 legislation, regarding the symbolic significance as of greater importance than the cost of an additional public holiday.

Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) – Spoke as someone who had voted against the 1979 legislation, asserted that the American Revolution would stand incomplete without recognition of the civil rights movement.

Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) – Praised King’s civil rights activism as well as his anti-war platform, for which he stated his belief that if King were still alive he would be opposing the heating up of the Cold War and the Reagan Administration’s policies on civil rights.

Lou Stokes (D-Ohio) – Dismissed attacks on King’s character as how people react when they find out a great man has faults, regarded King as our nation’s Gandhi, and regarded the argument over cost as trivial. 

Opposed to MLK Day: Only ten representatives actually took to the floor to speak against the King Holiday, and most opposition was based on support for the Sunday substitute.

William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) – Dannemeyer led House opposition to MLK Day and cited Germany celebrating the fourth Sunday in October as the birth of King’s adopted namesake, the great theologian Martin Luther. Thus, he thought it appropriate that Martin Luther King Jr. should get the third Sunday in January instead of a paid public holiday.

Carroll Campbell (R-S.C.)  – Spoke out against creating another paid federal holiday. Stated that Washington’s Birthday had been redesignated as President’s Day, which was not technically true, but in the public’s mind it was after the 1968 law on holidays. Campbell protested against the denial of a vote on the proposal to make MLK Day a Sunday.

Daniel B. Crane (R-Ill.) – Called for a day on Sunday in January for recognition instead.

Larry McDonald (D-Ga.) – Chairman of the John Birch Society, cited MLK’s ties with communists Stanley Levinson, Jack O’Dell, and other radicals. He regarded his associations and activities as “questionable”. McDonald defended J. Edgar Hoover’s pursuit of King and wanted his tapes declassified as were FDR’s and JFK’s. He also cited the Virginia Taxpayer’s Association’s opposition to the measure.

Herbert Bateman (R-Va.) – Came out in “reluctant opposition” to the MLK Day, citing cost and supporting the proposed Sunday substitute. Spoke in support of a federal holiday for Thomas Jefferson for his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) – Spoke in favor of King’s civil rights activities, but against adding another federal holiday, which he cited a $235 million cost to the taxpayer and characterized it as a paid day off for bureaucrats. He thought the creation of a bust or statue of Dr. King in the Capitol, which he voted for in 1981, as a fitting memorial.

Jack Fields (R-Tex.) – Cited a $221 million cost to the taxpayer for the new holiday, wanted a Sunday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Phil Crane (R-Ill.) – Cited common public celebration of “President’s Day” rather than Washington’s birthday, held that states should decide on this matter.

William Nichols (D-Ala.) – Protested suspension of the rules procedure, cited budget deficit as a reason to not adopt the King holiday.

Andy Ireland (R-Fla.) – Opposed the creation of more federal holidays.

On August 2, 1983, MLK Day was passed 338-90 (D 249-13, R 89-77). Notably, House freshman and future presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) voted against the holiday but didn’t speak on the House floor on the matter. He later expressed regret for his vote against during his 2008 presidential campaign. The bill moved on to the Senate, which at the time had a Republican majority. The key senators pushing the measure were Senators Baker (R-Tenn.), Byrd (D-W.V.), Dole (R-Kan.), Mathias (R-Md.), Thurmond (R-S.C.), and Biden (D-Del.). However, they encountered difficulties in the form of some recalcitrant senators and a reluctant president.  

Senators who spoke for the MLK Day:

Charles Mathias (R-Md.), Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.), Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.), James Sasser (D-Tenn.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), John Danforth (R-Mo.), Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), Joe Biden (D-Del.), Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.).

Notable speeches in favor:

Charles Mathias (R-Md.) – Although he addressed a concern by Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) about growing numbers of public holidays and their cost as valid, he nonetheless regarded King as a worthy recipient of a paid holiday for his importance. Humorously referred to sparing the chamber his rendition of “What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours” and cited the fact that the adoption of the Sunday proposal in 1979 resulted in the killing of the bill.

Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) – Hatfield expressed his preference for a “Civil Rights Day”, citing “Labor Day” as a precedent. However, he stated that if brought to a vote he would vote for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and indeed he did.

Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) – Spoke in favor of King holiday, regarding his movement and his “I Have a Dream” speech as a foremost expression of democracy.

Mack Mattingly (R-Ga.) – A cosponsor of the Boren amendment establishing Washington’s and King’s days on their actual birthdays and Columbus Day on the day of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, spoke in favor of adopting the Boren amendment as well as the King holiday. Cited the progress made on racial relations because of King’s work.

Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) – Spoke of Dr. King as teaching that there is no place for hate and that in American institutions existed the capability to right the course on racial discrimination. Shot back at Senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and John Porter East (R-N.C.) in the former’s implication that King was a communist and the latter’s implication that he called American soldiers Nazis during the Vietnam War.

Joe Biden (D-Del.) – Held that to characterize King as only a civil rights activist was to miss the larger picture, that he was the social conscience of America. Cited King as holding America true to the words of the Declaration of Independence, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.

Bob Dole (R-Kan.) – Spoke in favor of the holiday as commemorating King’s birthday as holding true to American compassion and nonconformity. Considered Dr. King a national healer, and thus worthy of a holiday.

Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.) – Although Denton acknowledged that King was imperfect, he found that King’s greatness and the change he brought to the South made him worthy of a holiday.

Speeches against:

Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) – Spoke in support of a Sunday for the King celebration, cited cost of a public holiday in the face of a budget deficit, and cited hidden costs from the inability of certain business to transact on a Monday. Humphrey also spoke of how Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated without a paid day off.

Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) – Spoke in support of a day for Thomas Jefferson instead, and like Larry McDonald of the House, Helms used this opportunity to knock King’s character and regarded his movement as distorted by “subversive” influences. He held that Congress should declassify materials on MLK before embracing this holiday and offered multiple amendments to try and disrupt the process, including a posthumous pardon for Marcus Garvey. Bemoaned that facts were being dismissed as trash, even though Democrats are vigorous in their investigations of Reagan nominees, and cited former President Harry S. Truman’s and Senator Robert Byrd’s (D-W.V.) unflattering past remarks about King.

Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) – Proposed an alternative “National Heroes Day”, an unpaid holiday on the third Sunday of January that would recognize multiple heroes of American history, determined by a commission that would presumably include King. He also cited an $18 million expense directly and $270 million in lost productivity.

Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) – Argued against based on cost to taxpayers and that it would be, aside from George Washington, the only holiday celebrating an individual. Stated his great hesitation in voting “no”.

Unique dissents:

Jennings Randolph (D-W.V.) insisted that MLK day be celebrated on the day of his birth every year, and for this reason he was one of four Senate Democrats to vote no.

Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) harbored no objections to celebrating MLK, but wanted a day of recognition for American Indians if there was to be an MLK Day. His opposition was in protest for a lack of such day being considered.

Several amendments were offered to this legislation. The most notable were:

Senator Dave Boren’s (D-Okla.) proposal to hold the birthdays of King, Washington, and the landing in the Americas by Columbus to be on their actual dates, failed 45-52. This was the closest vote of the King Holiday debate.

Senator Gordon J. Humphrey’s (R-N.H.) proposal to designate the third Sunday in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, failed 16-74.

Senator Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) proposal to not allow a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. to be enacted unless one is enacted for Thomas Jefferson first, failed 10-82.

Senator Warren Rudman’s (R-N.H.) proposal to designate March 16th as “National Civil Rights Day”, failed 22-68.

Senator Jennings Randolph’s (D-W.V.) proposal for MLK Day to be on his actual date of birth, January 15, failed 23-71.

A proposal to recommit and thus kill the bill for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day failed 12-76.

The MLK Day legislation passed 78-22 (R 37-18, D 41-4) on October 19th. Notably, the only senators of former Confederate states to vote against were John Stennis (D-Miss.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), John Porter East (R-N.C.), and John Tower (R-Tex.).

President Ronald Reagan was reluctant about adopting this day based on cost, and in response to a question from Sam Donaldson as to whether he thought MLK sympathized with communism as did Jesse Helms, he replied flippantly, “Well, we’ll know in about thirty-five years, won’t we?”, a throwaway answer referring to the eventual declassification of FBI documents on him (Williams). Reagan subsequently apologized to Coretta Scott King over the phone. After Senate passage, he signed the bill into law.

The first day MLK Day was celebrated nationally was January 20, 1986. The most significant subsequent conflict that arose regarding the holiday was the election of Evan Mecham as Governor of Arizona that year, in which one of his platforms was a decertifying Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which Governor Bruce Babbitt had instituted by circumventing the state legislature, a legally questionable act. Arizona under Mecham decertified the day but it was reinstated in 1992 by public referendum. 

I would argue that Juneteenth is a more justified day than MLK Day, as it celebrates an event rather than a single person and that event is one that I would hope no one disputes is good. The only argument I can see against it is that it fulfills a certain dreaded “woke” agenda, indeed that seems to be how the fourteen House Republicans saw it. Although I am not “woke”, I see no harm in this holiday by itself and quite frankly it’s the one that should have been adopted back in 1983.

P.S.: A fascinating tidbit from Senator George Mitchell (D-Me.) that indicates how feelings on Columbus Day were quite a bit different thirty-eight years ago than now, “Columbus Day is a tribute, not to Italian Americans, but to the courage of men who sailed into a horizon of which they knew nothing. It is a tribute to the fact that our national origins are diverse, Columbus Day does not denigrate the bravery or seacaptains of English or Italian or any other extraction. It stands for all early voyagers who had the vision and the courage to sail into the unknown, and for what we have achieved as a result of their bravery”. (Congressional Record, 28368)


“Designation of the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., as a Legal Public Holiday.” Congressional Record 129: 16 (August 2, 1983) p. 22208-22243.

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“Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.” Congressional Record 129: 16 (October 19, 1983) p. 28341-28380.

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To Agree to a Substitute to H.R. 5461. Govtrack.

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To Suspend the Rules and Pass H.R. 5461. Govtrack.

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Williams, J. (1983, October 22). Reagan Calls Mrs. King to Explain. Washington Post.

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