Recalling N.H.’s long road to a ‘real’ MLK Jr. Day

Back more than 30 years ago, then-President Ronald Reagan – albeit after overcoming occasional uncertainty – put pen to paper and signed into law a national holiday commemorating the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Just over two years later, on the day of the first observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18, 1986, Reagan called the new holiday “a time for rejoicing and reflecting.

“We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded …,” the popular Republican president said that day.

Surely, any normal thinking American would agree, it would be just a matter of time – perhaps a year or two, three at the most – that every one of the United States would have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day on their calendars.

But not so fast. Turns out, plenty of state-level lawmakers and other high office-holders began seeping out of the woodwork, ready and willing to defend their state against what they probably saw as “the Feds” butting in and telling them which holidays their states would, and wouldn’t, observe each year.

On the front lines of the resistance were Alabama (no surprise), Mississippi (again, no surprise), Arizona, Arkansas and New Hampshire.

Wait, New Hampshire?

As anyone who has called the Granite State home for 30 years can tell you, yes, indeed, our little Northeastern U.S. state, with virtually nothing else in common with those four Southern holdouts, succeeded in avoiding a straightforward Dr. Martin Luther King Day holiday for some 14 years.

Fortunately, small armies of rational, thoughtful New Hampshirites rose to the occasion, mounting a strengthening crusade that picked up a bit more momentum with each election cycle – until it all paid off in the fall of 1999.

At long last, New Hampshire lawmakers passed legislation declaring Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official state holiday. In June 2000, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed the measure into law amid cheers, handshakes and hugs.

My memory – refreshed by some research I did last week – is of opponents of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday turning themselves inside out trying to come up with reasons why such a holiday should be named “Civil Rights Day,” or at the very least, “Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day.”

I guess that if the medicine was diluted, it wouldn’t be so hard to swallow.

“What about Jonathan Daniels?” others shrieked. “He was a civil rights hero, right? “Shouldn’t he be recognized too?”

Well, yes, Daniels – a Keene native and civil rights activist killed in 1965 Alabama while protecting a fellow activist during a protest over unfair treatment of African-American workers – was indeed a hero, but not on the national, and world, stage from which King preached.

“The civil rights movement was bigger than just one man” was another reason opponents came up with.

And, of course, the infamous “He’s a communist!” “He opposed the Vietnam War!” (The latter is pretty weak; who besides a few White House folks supported it?)

Some state leaders insisted another paid holiday for employees would be too expensive. And, oh, national holidays are for public office-holders, like Washington and Columbus. Honoring a private citizen, the opponents explained, would be contrary to longstanding tradition.

Over time, several states were able to retain their watered-down commemorations of King’s birthday. Idaho liked “Martin Luther King Jr. – Idaho Human Rights Day,” while Virginia, until 2000, combined King Day with its Lee-Jackson Day.

In Wyoming, “Martin Luther King Jr./Wyoming Equality Day” was observed until recently.

Now, all the states – except two – have an actual Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.

If you guessed those two are Alabama and Mississippi, you’d be correct. Mississippi observes “Martin Luther King’s and Robert E. Lee’s Birthdays,” while Alabama has “Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Birthday.” Give Ole Miss credit for at least giving King top billing; sorry, ‘Bama, you’re in the cellar.

As for King’s communist allegations – all false, of course, or, if you prefer, “fake news” – my research triggered a memory of the late, but not great, North Carolina Senate lifer Jesse Helms’s nearly apoplectic tirade on the Senate floor when the Martin Luther King Jr. Day bill came up for discussion.

Arguing that King, as a communist, did not deserve the honor of a holiday, Helms also demanded the FBI to release its files on King, which were compiled through longtime director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with taking the man down.

Helms filibustered against the bill, accusing King of espousing “action-oriented Marxism” and other un-American activites.

When Helms submitted a 300-page document full of accusations against King to the Senate, Democratic New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the document a “packet of filth,” then threw it on the Senate floor and stomped on it.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com