Making History with the King Holiday Legislation

Every year about this time I reflect on one of my fondest memories, while working on Capitol Hill for Senator Birch Bayh as a Legislative Aide. This time is memorable to me because I had the honor to work on legislation introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy, as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Birch Bayh, to designate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday as a national holiday.

When Senator Kennedy invited Senator Bayh and me to his office in order to discuss the feasibility of introducing legislation to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, I immediately recognized the magnitude of the task. As we strolled into the Senator’s office on the fourth floor of the Russell Senate Office Building and saw Coretta Scott King and Congressman John Conyers with Kennedy and Peter Parham sitting there, I also knew we were about to be part of making history.

Peter Parham, who had arrived in Washington D. C. from Boston, Massachusetts, was a staff member for Senator Kennedy. Prior to taking the position with Kennedy, Peter was the Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools in Boston, when all the turbulence regarding school busing exploded. He arrived in Washington in January 1977. I had also come to D.C. at the same time from Indiana University where I was in the middle of completing my Ph.D. in Political Science. Peter and I had a great deal in common. We were among the early wave of Blacks who worked for very liberal Senators and we were both members of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

After Mrs. King explained that Congressman Conyers had introduced legislation to make her husband’s birthday a national holiday back in 1968 and made little progress on the House side of the Congress, Kennedy and Bayh agreed to introduce legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Peter and I were given the task of putting the entire hearing together. When Birch Bayh introduced S.25, which was identical to the Conyers bill, H.R. 15, and Kennedy announced there would be two days of hearing, that marked the beginning of a four-year struggle to get the proposed legislation passed into law. It would also be the first time in the history of the Senate that two Black American staffers organized a hearing on a major piece of legislation.

Working closely with Mrs. King and Conyers’ staff as well as Reginald Gilliam who was also an Omega and a Black staffer with Senator John Glenn, Peter and I identified those leaders who would be invited to testify in support of the legislation. We placed notice of the public hearing in the Public Bulletin and then had to set the time for the opposition to testify.

As we prepared for the hearing, we knew the first obstacle we would confront was the tremendous amount of opposition from the southern Senators on the Judiciary Committee and within the full body of the Senate. We were not disappointed. After the elected officials who were in support of the legislation testified, they were followed by Senators Strom Thurmond, a Republican from South Carolina and Jesse Helms, also a Republican from North Carolina. They were the two leaders of the opposition within the Senate. The leader on the House side was Congressman Larry McDonald, a Democrat from Georgia. The key opposition outside the Congress was the Liberty Lobby and its spokespersons Stanley Rittenhouse and Julia Brown.

After Kennedy and Bayh read their opening statements, they were followed by several of the thirty-seven Senators who had signed on to Bayh’s “Letter of Support.” That first day of testimony came from supporters of the legislation. It was a walk in the park. Many of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus spoke. Then Joseph Lowrey, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Mrs. King testified. She made a deeply passionate plea for the Senators to pass this legislation, as a tribute to a man who had sacrificed all his life to help make the United States a better place for all its citizens. She told the Senators that more than any other man, “King was committed to achieving the words set out in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, with certain inalienable rights to include the pursuit of happiness through liberty and freedom.”

Unfortunately, Mrs. King’s words did not convince Thurmond, Helms and McDonald and the entire contingent of congressmen and women opposed to the legislation. Thurmond was the first to testify against the legislation. He argued that it would be much too expensive to the taxpayers to have another paid holiday, so close after the Christmas and New Year holidays. He proposed to have a day of recognition on every Sunday before January 15, the actual day of King’s birth. He further stated that since King was a minister and Blacks were such a religious people, it would be proper to honor him on a Sunday. Kennedy and Bayh immediately requested a cost benefit analysis from the Congressional Budget Office. The result indicated that the money spent as a result of the holiday, would easily offset the cost to the government for the additional day off for workers. With the CBO figures, we were able to dispel Thurmond’s claim of the cost and that effectively quieted his opposition.

Helms and McDonald along with Rittenhouse and Julia Brown, a Black woman who had worked undercover for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, argued that King was influenced by communist and may have secretly been a communist. That argument was quickly dispelled because they had no proof that King had ever attended a communist meeting. Helms finally attacked King as being an immoral man. He passed around a file to the Senators with alleged information about King’s moral behavior. It was so disgusting to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that he addressed it on the Senate floor. He said, “The Congress of the United States has never been so sick as it could be today with the filth in this brown folder.” He then tossed the binder onto the floor and walked away.

Despite the efforts of Kennedy and Bayh, we were not able to get the legislation to the Senate floor for a vote. It was tabled in committee. But our efforts were not in vain. For any legislation to pass through Congress it must first be put on the congressional agenda. Once on the agenda, you can then address all the opposition and that is what we did quite effectively. Mrs. King then initiated a massive lobbying effort, facilitated by the King Center for Non-Violence. The spokesperson for the holiday was Stevie Wonder. He led a rally on the Capitol grounds every year with his signature song, “Happy Birthday to You.”

After four years of up and down battles, the legislation was finally passed in the House of Representatives by a 338 to 90 vote and in the Senate by a 78 to 22 vote in 1983. And it all got started that day in March, when Senators Kennedy and Bayh introduced the idea of a national holiday for Dr. King in the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate.

Peter and I continued to work together on legislation supported by our two Senators, until we both moved on to other opportunities. I accepted a position with Congressman Parren Mitchell, Chair of the House Small Business Committee and two-time chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and Peter took on the responsibility in assisting Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push initiatives. As time has passed, Peter and I will always remember the opportunity given to us to make history as two Black staffers who organized the first major hearing to pass legislation, honoring a great Black man with the designation of his birthday as a national holiday.

One thought on “Making History with the King Holiday Legislation

  1. Steve Amberg

    Thanks for sharing the wonderful memory. It just lacks a photo of you in 1977.
    Persistence and commitment by people of good will matter in the legislative process, qualities that will be tested again in the coming weeks and months.

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