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Republicans Blew It: MLK Day’s 25th Observance A Missed Opportunity

Many conservatives wonder: Why do so many black Americans still feel like our country doesn’t truly embrace them as equal citizens? And why, despite the comparative historical records of Republicans and Democrats on the issue of racial equality, do a majority of our black citizens feel their home is with the Democrat Party (the party that has been most overtly against racial equality through the years)?

Perhaps on this, the 25th Anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, an examination of the holiday’s history would be useful:

  • It took 32 years of national debate until Martin Luther King Day was finally observed as an official holiday across all 50 states. (The bill was first introduced in the House of Representatives in 1968; first voted on in 1979; the holiday first celebrated in 1986; first observed by all 50 states in 2000.)
  • Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) led opposition to the bill; he decried King as espousing “action-oriented Marxism” and other “radical political” views.
  • Ronald Reagan (R) was also opposed to the holiday. He changed his plan to veto the King Day only after Congress passed it with a veto-proof majority.
  • Incredibly, in 1983 Virginia added King’s name to an existing holiday that celebrated Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The holidays were finally uncoupled and King given his own holiday in 2000.
  • Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) originally campaigned against making the the day a national holiday; but later changed his opposition.
  • The National Football League boycotted hosting Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona after the state’s citizens voted down a 1990 proposal to make the day a state holiday.
  • South Carolina (a state that had been moving into the Republican column since the late 1960s) was the last state to recognize MLK day as an official state holiday, which it finally did in 2000. Prior to that, it was on a list of four holidays from which state employees could choose one to celebrate (the other three were Confederate holidays.)
  • Though the day is has been an official Federal and State holiday since 2000, observance by U.S. businesses has traditionally hovered at only 30-33%. In other words, it’s a “Columbus Day” kind of holiday – not quite “real” in the national sense.

    To be fair, there has been far more support for the day among Republicans than highlighted above. King himself probably would have valued Republicans’ real-life actions towards civil rights more than simply the creation of a holiday in his honor:

  • For example, Republican Senator Bob Dole (R-Kan), who was floor manager for the legislation then attacked by Helms, was joined by “Old South” Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) in bringing the matter to a vote. Thurmond filed a cloture motion and Dole rebuffed Helms’ contention that the new King holiday would be too costly to the federal government by asking “”Since when did a dollar sign take its place atop our moral code?”
  • When Ronald Reagan threatened to veto proposed 1983 legislation which finally made the day a national holiday, a large number of Republicans in each chamber voted against their president’s wishes to create veto-proof majorities: 69 in the House of Representatives, and 24 in the Senate.
  • There have been so many more examples of Republican support of civil rights: As early as 1959, when many Democrats will fight against civil rights, Dwight D. Eisenhower asked William T. Coleman to serve on the President’s Commission on Employment Policy which was increasingly working on minority issues. The 1965 Voting Rights Act would never have come to a vote, or passed, were it not for a large number of Republicans that supported it.In 1966, Republican voters elected the first black to the U.S. Senate since the Reconstruction era (Edward William Brooke.) Republican presidents proposed the first black Supreme Court justice (Clarence Thomas), named the first TWO black Secretaries of State (General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice), and appointed the first black National Security Advisor (Condoleeza Rice).
  • And of course, Abraham Lincoln – father of the Republican party – fought many Democratic southern interests in ending slavery; and Democrats continued to be the party of racism in that region for decades to follow.)

    * * *

    With this track record, why are Republicans still seen as the party of “whitey” by so many black Americans? I submit this theory: Even with all the Republican’s documented good deeds, Republican leaders’ recent history of opposing the creation of MLK Day has branded it as the anti-black political party.

    This year’s 25th anniversary of the first observance of the holiday would have been an excellent opportunity to stand this perception on its head. Why Republicans have not come out more strongly in calling for all businesses to observe MLK Day as a paid holiday amazes me. We should be leading this charge.

    After all, without the work of Dr. King, black Americans would never have been able to join the American workforce with any equality. They would never have risen in economic equality, further fueling the American businesses that strive to meet their needs. Would any business in our country today voluntarily give up the black segment of their customer base, and go back to serving a smaller overall U.S. marketplace made up of whites only? Of course not.

    The economic contribution of black consumers has been key in supporting the growth of American business. So why is American business – and the Republican party – so blind?

    The universal observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is something that should become a cause célèbre for American conservatives, if for no other reason than to prove to black Americans “Your heroes are also our heroes” and “we care about you.” The picayune arguments against fully embracing the holiday (cost, opening the door to other holidays, etc.) need to trumped by the wisdom that it is simply the right thing to do.

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