Lest we forget, support for a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. was not popular with the right (It’s worth noting the House Republican supporters of a holiday: Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Hamilton Fish, Henry Hyde, Dan Coats, Jack Kemp, Bob Michel, and Dan Lungren; Howard Baker and Richard Lugar, the latter “primaried” in 2012, provided crucial Senate support). Ronald Reagan signed the bill reluctantly. Asked if King was a Communist, Reagan quipped, “We’ll know in thirty-five years, won’t we?” What a guy. At first Congress voted for a statue. Opponents of both, according to could have used a substantive counter-argument:
Opponents of the holiday could have said: Congress already honored King with substantive action, in the Fair Housing Act of 1968. To point to the superfluity of an additional tribute would have bolstered the most effective point that holiday opponents made, though they never emphasized or belabored it: A Martin Luther King holiday would be an odd, cult-of-personality-like gesture, the sort of thing that King had always opposed. To point to Congress’s substantive tribute to King from 1968 would also have given holiday opponents the cover of respectability that they clearly sought. It would have backed up their claim that they really respected King; they just did not think a holiday was the most apt way to honor him.
There’s something to this, I admit. Given the false choice between embalming King and continuing the hard work of writing legislation that gave the poor some kind of floor of support, I would have gone with the latter and so would you, especially when schoolbooks and public men honor what was even in 1983 the most easily digestible portion of his legacy while overlooking his stances after 1966, the point at which the Vietnam War undid the landmark legislation for which King and his predecessors had suffered and died. King understood — to a degree so did Johnson — that fair housing, a living wage, clean air, and safe food represented the next battle, without which voting and civil rights look fungible. I recommend Taylor Branch’s magnificent multi-part biography and Gary May’s recent Bending Towards Justice.