EDITORIAL: Remembering Martin Luther King

If we are wise, the passing of time provides perspective. Those things that seem abhorrent and impossible today may take on wholly different color through the lens of time.

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., could well testify to the value of time as an antidote for short-sighted politics. After all, it took Conyers 15 years of diligent effort to make the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday.

Just four days after the civil rights leader was assassinated in April 1968, Rep. Conyers introduced the first bill to establish King’s birthday as a national holiday. For the next decade and a half, his efforts were continually and consistently rebuffed by Congress. During that time, Rep. Conyers and others introduced a total of 17 unsuccessful measures to honor Mr. King with a national holiday.

Finally, under President Ronald Reagan, Rep. Conyers’ hopes were realized. On November 2, 1983, President Reagan signed the King holiday into law. The steps toward that signature are worth remembering.

The opening of the 98th Congress coincided with the 15th anniversary of Mr. King’s death. During the previous year, the King Center had spearheaded a mass mobilization in support of the effort. A march on Washington was organized, with more than 100 organizations participating.

A lobbying group was formed to help persuade members of Congress. The group received initial financial support from musician Stevie Wonder. In late 1982, Mr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, along with Mr. Wonder, provided House Speaker Tip O’Neill with a petition signed by 6 million Americans calling for the holiday.

When the bill finally reached the House floor, the ensuing debate was as surprising as it was spirited. Detractors, including Rep. William Dannemeyer, R-Calif., cited the enormous cost of yet another federal holiday as primary justification for their position. Rep. Parren Mitchell, D-Md., responded: “What do you mean ‘cost?’ What was the cost of keeping us blacks where we were?”

Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., offered: “I really think that the American Revolution will not be complete until we commemorate the civil rights revolution and guarantee those basic declarations of human rights for all Americans and remove those barriers that stand in the way of people being what they are meant to be.”

As we search for solutions to all that ails us as a nation, we should remember those things that have served to unite political foes. While history will pass ultimate judgment on the greater relevance of particular individuals, the basic quest for dignity and equal opportunity can re-energize our discussion and provide common ground.

That Mr. King’s life and work helps remind us of this makes the world a little better. Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

This editorial was prepared by Stephens Media’s Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial.

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