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.
Congressman 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 see the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday.
Just four days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Conyers introduced the first bill designed 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, Conyers and others introduced a total of 17 different unsuccessful measures to honor King with a national holiday.
Finally, under President Ronald Reagan, Conyers’ hopes were realized. On November 2, 1983, Reagan signed the King holiday into law. The steps toward that signature bear some recollection.
The opening of the 98th Congress coincided with the 15 anniversary of 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 lobby group was formed to help persuade members of Congress. The group received initial financial support from the musical star, Stevie Wonder. In late 1982, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, along with 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, exemplified by Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), cited the enormous cost of yet another federal holiday as primary evidence for their position.
Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.) retorted: “What do you mean ‘cost?’ What was the cost of keeping us blacks where we were… I am talking about what is the right and decent thing to do, and to urge a vote for this bill in the form that it is.”
What is perhaps more evocative for people on both ends of the current political and social continuum is to recall those Republicans who eagerly supported the bill. People like future Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp (R-New York) both spoke in support of the measure. Kemp’s remarks in particular, bear remembering: “I have changed my position on this vote because 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.”
With a noted passion, Kemp went on to say: “If we lose sight of the fact that the Republican Party was founded by Mr. Lincoln as a party of civil rights, of freedom, and hope, and opportunity, and dreams, and a place where all people could be free; if we turn our backs we are not going to be the party of human dignity we want as Republicans to be known for.”
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 human dignity, due process and equal opportunity are still appropriate places from which to reenergize our discussion and declare common ground. That Dr. King’s life and work helps remind us of this makes the world a little better.