"Misled into believing" MLK was a great man: How some Republicans fought against the King holiday

These days, some conservatives embrace King. Let's revisit the fascinating battle within the GOP during the 1980s

Published January 19, 2014 12:00PM (EST)

Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich           (AP/Dennis Cook/Reuters/Mike Theiler/Salon)
Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich (AP/Dennis Cook/Reuters/Mike Theiler/Salon)

Excerpted from "Waking From the Dream"

As support for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday grew, one new sponsor marked the tectonic shifts of symbolic alignments in the era. John Danforth was a new Republican senator from Missouri, a millionaire who had unseated the old liberal Democrat Stuart Symington in 1976. Danforth urged his fellow Republicans to join him in honoring King. Armed with a divinity degree, Danforth was helping to refashion the GOP as a crucible for the mixing of church and state—just as Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson were using public displays of religion to challenge the Democratic establishment. Danforth believed he was following Martin Luther King’s example.

Danforth later revealed that he had gotten to know King and King’s father when he served as a board member of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College. He did not want champions of the welfare state to have a monopoly on public claims of morality and decency. To Danforth, King’s determination in the fight for equality symbolized ―the spirit of American freedom and self-determination." Was Danforth’s view of King’s legacy in step with the growing body of social conservatives, who were campaigning vigorously to take over the GOP and the country? That question still appeared to be open, what with much of the pro-life movement claiming King as an inspiration and model, and with at least two Republican presidential candidates (John Connally and John Anderson) making a great show of repudiating their former opposition to King and civil rights. Danforth signaled a new possibility for conservative Republicans: They could claim some affinity, even allegiance, to King’s mantle. They may not have wanted to convince many black voters, and they did not need to. White conservatives in particular recognized in King a model to emulate—notably his use of religious enthusiasm and will-to-sacrifice. Nobody better illustrated Coretta Scott King’s point that King had spoken "to us all."

* * *

Other conservatives got in Danforth’s way, however, with tough ideological attacks on King’s legacy. When Senator Strom Thurmond reconvened the joint hearing, opponents of the King holiday were given the most room they ever had in the record. First was Alan Stang, author of an anticommunist tract, "It’s Very Simple: The True Story of Civil Rights" (1965). Stang enumerated King’s alleged communist associations more clearly than any holiday opponent had done on the record before. He also did a better job than anyone had in spelling out the claim that King provoked violence. To people who wondered why "violence was so often a hallmark of King’s so-called nonviolent movement," Stang answered that "violence was exactly what he wanted," citing King’s own article in the April 3, 1964, Saturday Review. There King laid out his strategy: Nonviolent demonstrators went into the streets to exercise their rights, and racists resisted by unleashing violence against them, which led "Americans of conscience" to demand federal intervention and legislation. "So," Stang concluded, "the violence he [King] got was not a surprise" and King "did not dislike it. He wanted it in order to pressure the Congress to enact still more totalitarian legislation."

Thurmond called a real live communist next: Julia Brown, a self-identified "loyal American Negro," who worked as a communist organizer beginning in 1947. At first, Brown had thought she was "joining a legitimate civil rights organization[.] Finding that I was a true member of the Communist Party[,] which advocated the overthrow of the United States Government, I decided to leave the organization, but I had to bide my time to avoid suspicion." Soon she went to the FBI to report what she had witnessed. "In 1951, I was asked by the FBI to go back into the Communist Party as an undercover agent to report on their subversive activities." She claimed that only party members attended the meetings she attended. She "frequently heard Martin Luther King discussed." The communist cells she was in were "continually being asked to raise money for Martin Luther King’s activities and to support his civil rights movement by writing letters to the press and influencing local clergymen, and especially Negro clergymen that he was a good person, unselfishly working for the American Negro, and in no way connected with the Communist Party."

Brown proposed an ingenious way to counter all that communist influence: "[A] great many Negroes, such as George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington," provide American youth with a positive example. King, by contrast, provided an example of "agitation and manipulation for goals dictated by hatred and envy." If the committee recommended a King holiday, "The memory of Carver and Washington would be dishonored." If the holiday bill passed, "we may as well take down the Stars and Stripes that fly over this building and replace it with a Red flag." Similar testimony came from Karl Prussion, a former undercover FBI agent.

Larry McDonald then stepped up and brought affirmative action, which had been upheld in the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, into the discussion. He questioned whether King "really found racism repugnant in light of his support of discrimination in jobs and housing so long as the discrimination was in favor of blacks." King’s forming a "common front" with the "virulently racist Nation of Islam" in Chicago raised the same question. McDonald qualified his points: "While Rev. King did not advocate race hatred, he did not bar alliances with racists and he did not keep them from his personal staff." McDonald gave a single quotation to back up the second claim: King’s staff member James Bevel said in 1966 in Chicago that "we need an army . . . to fight the white man this summer." King’s civil disobedience dangerously taught young people "contempt for the law." A King holiday would teach the same lesson.

John Ashbrook did not show up for the hearing, but he joined McDonald in submitting a written statement. "It is not popular and certainly not politically advantageous to speak in opposition to a man who has been canonized by the news media and by many . . . who profess to advocate civil rights," Ashbrook acknowledged. But "Rev. King’s motives are misrepresented. He sought not to work through the law but around it, with contempt and violence. How soon we forget. When will politicians learn to accept history as it really happened instead of history as told by the Washington Post?" The issue was whether Congress would "support the fictional assessment of Dr. King" by adopting a holiday that would "take the taxpayers for a ride to the tune of millions and millions of dollars" and whether America’s children would "be misled into believing" that King was a great man and learn to speak of him "with the same reverence" they now reserve for Washington and Lincoln.

A Statue in Lieu of a Holiday?

Lack of coordination among conservatives became more evident when King was next discussed on the floor of Congress at the end of July. The provocation was a resolution dating back several years to erect a statue of King somewhere on the Capitol grounds. It actually passed both houses in the 94th Congress (1975–76), but since the Senate version passed only at the very end of term, the House did not have time to consider the Senate amendments. In the 95th Congress (1977–78), the House passed it, but not the Senate. It would cost $25,000, out of contingent funds already appropriated. It would be the first work of art displayed in the Capitol that memorialized a black American. (There were then 681 that did not memorialize black Americans.) Its author, Democrat Jonathan Bingham of New York, said it had passed before with "little or no dissent."

Ashbrook put an end to that. He was "sad" that no black leader was memorialized in the Capitol, but this particular leader would soon be revealed as an "inappropriate choice." Time and history would "show that there could have been much better choices." History had a way of reappraising once-popular leaders—he repeated Thurmond’s example of John Kennedy, and added Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover. Ashbrook was the difference be-ween little and no dissent in the past. He was the only one to speak against the King statue now.

Rising to speak against Ashbrook was none other than freshman congressman Newt Gingrich. "As a representative of Georgia," Gingrich said that a King statue would be "an important symbol. It is very clear in the black community that this is the overwhelming choice of that community." Gingrich occupied the district adjacent to Larry McDonald’s in the booming suburbs of Atlanta. The statue passed overwhelmingly—supported by many who opposed the holiday—408 to 11.

Enactment of the statue statute appeared to be a rehearsal for the holiday vote to come. The vote here easily topped the two-thirds majority necessary to pass on a "suspension of rules," that is to say, quickly, and without the elaborate rigmarole the House insists upon for controversial legislation.

Ashbrook weighed in again on September 27, 1979, before the House committee took final action that year on the holiday bill. Ashbrook attacked the King Center by citing a news story that contained a wealth of damning circumstantial evidence about its finances, particularly suggesting a quid pro quo from the Carter administration, which had greatly increased the center’s public funding. The story quoted the artlessly evasive nondenials of a King Center spokesman. Ashbrook seemed to be testing whether any dirt could stick to the great Teflon icon of civil rights, whether his attack on the fundamental basis of the King holiday—as opposed to its price tag—could draw support anywhere but the outer fringes he and Larry McDonald hovered around.

The Holiday Nearly Passes

He had his answer soon. The House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service finally reported the holiday bill to the floor, favorably, on October 23, 1979. Its minority report—signed by only five of the committee’s nine Republicans—conspicuously left out any negative statements or insinuations about King or his associations. It included only two objections to the holiday. Most important was a concise—and persuasive—objection to the majority’s fuzzy math on its cost. An ancillary concern was whether Congress should single out King—whom the minority praised—for an honor it denied to Jefferson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. These objections were confirmed as the respectable bases of opposition to the holiday. Fiscal discipline and an unwillingness to put King on a pedestal above long-hallowed national heroes constituted the broadest argument that could plausibly attract a majority.

Opponents of the holiday could have said: Congress already honored King with substantive action, in the Fair Housing Act of 1968. To point to the superfluity of an additional tribute would have bolstered the most effective point that holiday opponents made, though they never emphasized or belabored it: A Martin Luther King holiday would be an odd, cult-of-personality-like gesture, the sort of thing that King had always opposed. To point to Congress’s substantive tribute to King from 1968 would also have given holiday opponents the cover of respectability that they clearly sought. It would have backed up their claim that they really respected King; they just did not think a holiday was the most apt way to honor him.

On November 13, 1979, an overwhelming majority of House members—252 to 133—voted to enact a federal holiday in honor of King on his birthday, January 15, every year. But that was not quite the two-thirds majority needed to speed the bill through Congress on the "suspension of rules" that holiday sponsors had somewhat overconfidently attempted. Holiday supporters were able to get the bill on the docket one more time days before the end of the session, on December 5, 1979. This time it could be carried by a simple majority, but congressional rules would allow opponents to delay action on the bill, or to attach weakening amendments to it.

A pro-holiday substitute amendment, offered by Republican Robert McClory of suburban Chicago, appeared to meet the cost argument halfway by changing the date of the King holiday from January 15 every year to the third Monday every January: a three-day weekend would not be as costly as the midweek interruptions that would occur almost half the time January 15 came up.

Holiday opponents tended to support a different substitute, to divert holiday feeling into a proclamation of commemoration of King’s birthday on the third Sunday of every January. The sponsor of the Sunday switch was the conservative Republican Robin Beard, whose district included several white precincts of Memphis and ran east to the outskirts of Nashville. Holiday supporters objected that a Sunday commemoration would eliminate all the honor that the holiday campaign had intended—and that the House had just voted overwhelmingly for on November 13. Cardiss Collins of Chicago’s West Side, speaking for the whole Black Caucus, said Beard’s version of King Day would be "a holiday in name only. We all know that many commemorative days and weeks have little meaning to the public." She wondered aloud how many present celebrated National Safe Boating Week, National Poison Prevention Week, or Pan-American Aviation Day, Stephen Foster Day, and Leif Ericson Day.

John Conyers and other longtime holiday supporters supported the McClory (Monday) amendment from the start. It passed overwhelmingly, 291–106, on December 5, 1979. That was well over the two-thirds majority that holiday supporters had needed back on November 13, though that was immaterial now. With a simple majority, it appeared that King’s supporters had at last gotten their holiday.

But Beard’s amendment came up ten minutes later and also carried, though narrowly: 207 in favor of the Sunday substitute, and 191 against. Holiday supporters, led by Conyers and Democratic congressman Robert Garcia of New York City, moved a petition to withdraw the whole bill in response. Thus, after building support for it all year, the Congressional Black Caucus and House liberals killed the proclamation of a national "Martin Luther King Day" just forty days before King’s fifty-first birthday. That was better than yielding to a phony "holiday" on a Sunday—which would have been hard to repeal down the road in favor of a real, weekday holiday. To block the Sunday substitute was the best they could do for now. They kept the possibility open that they could regroup and rally holiday support more effectively in a future Congress.

The Holiday Rises Again

How often does a second chance come? A big event came between the holiday bill’s sea-sickening swings and withdrawal in 1979 and the next round of debate and voting, in 1982–83. That event is often described as a revolution: Americans elected their most conservative president since 1928.

How quixotic it appeared—in the face of the man who resurrected the GOP from Watergate and decisively moved the voters away from their familiar ideological center—to revive the holiday bill in 1982. Not only was Ronald Reagan on the record as not supporting the King holiday, but the case against the holiday had certainly grown. The 1981–82 recession strengthened the argument that it was risky to shut the economy down for an additional three-day weekend every winter. Did CBC members actually expect enough Republicans to turn against Reagan and support the holiday? Or did they only wish to dramatize the CBC’s own victimization with an operatic auto-da-fé? Was the revival of the holiday bill a desperate existential thrust of American "progressives," who appeared to have nothing now but memories?

At the 1982 hearings, Coretta King once again headed the roster of pro-holiday witnesses, speaking with much less restraint than in 1979. She focused on the "traveling right-wing circus" that specialized in "character assassination and infantile name-calling." Her ire elevated the significance of the right-wing fringe and seemed to identify it with all opponents of the bill, including the Reagan administration.

Larry McDonald led the opposition’s side of the roster. He had one powerful new argument: Government secrecy was keeping America in the dark about King’s record. And for once, government secrecy was serving King and his allies. The SCLC and King’s assistant, Bernard Lee, had in fact obtained a court order in 1977 sealing the records of FBI surveillance of King till 2027. "If the FBI files had not proved King’s involvement with the Communists," McDonald argued, "we can rest assured that they would have been released as part of the attack on the FBI during the 1970’s." McDonald insisted the public had a right to see whether the nation’s top law enforcement agency had any reason to consider King a security risk.

McDonald piled on. He cited specific black people who had criticized King. He added that Harry Truman had called King a rabble-rouser. He thought it "racist" to reserve a holiday for black Americans: Why not an Indian American holiday? "I happen to be part Cherokee," he said. "Why not a Chinese American? Why not an Hispanic? . . . [W]e are supposed to be e pluribus unum." He returned again to his hope that, "in the spirit of openhandedness," Congress would ―open up the surveillance records . . . so that we would . . . have an opportunity to see if there is something there that a future time would prove to be greatly embarrassing."

In giving full hearing to the opposition, the committee had, perhaps unwittingly, done much to expose the ugliness of anti-King sentiment. This was a strange echo of King’s own maneuvers to bring the violence and hatred that he believed inhered in the segregation system to the surface—which McDonald and the other professional anticommunists said was the same as provoking violence.

Stevie Wonder—who had joined the holiday campaign and tried to promote it with one of the weakest songs he ever wrote, "Happy Birthday"—isolated the anticommunist attackers further. "Allow me to quote one American leader who seems to understand the value of remembering Dr. King," Wonder said. "I quote":

There are moments in history when the voice of one inspired man can echo the aspirations of millions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was such a man. To America he symbolized courage, sacrifice, and the tireless pursuit of justice. . . . To the world he will be remembered as a great leader and teacher, a man whose words awakened in us all the hope for a more just, more compassionate society. . . . His time among us was cut tragically short, but his message of tolerance, non-violence, and brotherhood lives on. . . . Let us all rededicate ourselves to making Martin Luther King’s inspiring dream come true for all Americans.

Wonder’s source? Ronald Reagan. Wonder had taken advantage of one of the president’s public statements praising King, which had separated Reagan from the extreme right views of McDonald, Ashbrook, and the like—and from Reagan’s own comment shortly after King’s murder in 1968 suggesting that King’s violent end had originated in the strategies he had promoted: The murder "was a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they’d break."

The most interesting witness against the holiday was J. A. Parker, the black conservative who had established his reputation by publishing a biography of the black communist leader Angela Davis, in which he attacked Dr. King as a more pernicious influence. In his testimony, Parker summed up the case against the holiday more fully and equitably than anyone inside or outside Congress. It was "unrealistic‖ to rank King with Jesus and Washington, Parker said. Parker named Jefferson, Lincoln, Patrick Henry, Crispus Attucks, Booker T. Washington, General Daniel "Chappie" James, and Franklin Roosevelt as examples Congress would have to pass over to do that. He complained that holiday supporters were "unwilling to let history make its final judgment on the merits or demerits of Dr. King." Parker could never forget King’s calling America "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" during Vietnam, or his likening the United States to Hitler’s Germany. Parker named five "influential" critics of King, without referring to their race (they were all black): Former U.S. senator from Massachusetts Edward Brooke; former NAACP director Roy Wilkins; former Urban League director Whitney Young; baseball hero Jackie Robinson; and nationally syndicated columnist Carl Rowan. To ignore King’s "divisive" role was "to ignore the past and rewrite history." The holiday, widely perceived as a sop to black voters, would "further exacerbate the effects of a color-conscious society at the expense of the color-blind society, which should be our goal."

* * *

Congress waited till late in the following year to act. Though President Reagan had not yet come out in support of the holiday, he made a strong public statement at the White House on King’s birthday in 1983 about "the man who tumbled the wall of racism in our country. Though Dr. King and I may not have exactly had identical political philosophies, we did share a deep belief in freedom and justice under God. Freedom is not something to be se- cured in any one moment of time. We must struggle to preserve it every day. And freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. History shows that Dr. King’s approach achieved great results in a comparatively short time, which was exactly what America needed. . . . What he accomplished—not just for black Americans, but for all Americans—he lifted a heavy burden from this country."

* * *

Republican supporters of the holiday included two of the most effective Republicans on Capitol Hill: Majority Leader Howard Baker and Finance Committee chairman (and former vice presidential candidate) Bob Dole. More surprising were the conservative Republicans who followed John Danforth’s example. Senator Richard Lugar (then associated with the rising "New Right" in the party) of Indiana and Congressman Dan Lungren of California soon joined the list of supporters. Lungren’s change in particular signaled the shift that Republicans were making across their ideological spectrum to support the holiday.

The House committee reported the bill favorably to the floor on July 26. Although Reagan had expressed some disapproval of the bill, nobody was putting up much of a fight against this old initiative, which had been a Democratic project, indeed a CBC project, since 1968. For some, action on the holiday was futile: Reagan was probably going to veto the bill. It had to clear both houses before anybody would find out.

The House vote came in on August 2, 1983. The King holiday had won an overwhelming majority: 338 members—nearly three fourths—voted for it. Of the 338 yes votes, 249 were Democrats— more than enough to carry the bill in the 435-member House. Among the 89 House Republicans voting for the King holiday were Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Hamilton Fish, Henry Hyde, Dan Coats, Jack Kemp, Bob Michel, and Dan Lungren. Among the 77 Republicans who voted no (about 40 percent of the Republican members) were: both Cranes (Phil and Dan, of Illinois), Jim Jeffords, Delbert Latta, Trent Lott, John McCain, and Ron Paul.

* * *

The 1983 Senate debate was far more dramatic than the House one, because there was reason to doubt the holiday’s fate in the Senate. It now had a Republican majority, elected on Ronald Reagan’s coattails. The holiday’s initial Senate sponsors included eight Republican senators, however, some of them conservative. They had to fight back a series of hostile amendments designed to embarrass holiday supporters, or to turn civil libertarians, black nationalists, and "Hispanic" voters against them.

The chief amender has gone down in history as perhaps the chief offender against the King legacy: Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Helms’s anti-holiday speeches drew lavish attention from the media, though Helms had never shown much interest in the legislation before: He did not testify in the hearings held in 1975, 1979, 1982, or 1983. For most of the final Senate debate in 1983, however, Helms’s attacks and threats to filibuster were the only big news. Helms succeeded in imprinting the extreme anticommunist message on the national memory far more than those who had made the same attacks on King during his lifetime. Armed with the Senate’s unique filibuster-enabling Rule 22, Helms resurrected Ashbrook and McDonald’s rhetoric while turning their lost cause into publicity—and significant political leverage—that they could only dream of.

But, like Ashbrook and McDonald, Helms played into the hands of holiday supporters. His statement—and headline-making showdown with Ted Kennedy—came at the start of the Senate debate on October 3. Helms went on for some twenty-one pages in the Senate record. He detailed the alleged communist associations and called for the release of the FBI records on King, and for a full hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Helms pitted liberal martyrs against one another, saying that Ted Kennedy (Helms’s principal antagonist in the debate over King’s past) was picking on the wrong man. Kennedy’s quarrel was not with "the senator from North Carolina." Kennedy’s quarrel was with "his dead brother who was president and his dead brother who was Attorney General": Both had warned King about his communist associates, and both ordered the FBI to maintain its investigation of him.

Helms’s case, as detailed and energetically argued as it was, depended too much on tenuous links. For example, he said, "King associated with identified members of the communist party of the United States (CPUSA), with persons who were former members of or close to the CPUSA, and with CPUSA front organizations. In some important respects King’s civil rights activities and later his opposition to the Vietnam war were strongly influenced by and dependent on these associations." Helms admitted, "There is no evidence that King himself was a member of the CPUSA or that he was a rigorous adherent of academic Marxist ideology or of the Communist Party line. Nevertheless, King was repeatedly warned about his associations with known Communists." It was all too easily and voluminously refuted, not only by Ted Kennedy, but by Republican Judiciary Committee members Arlen Specter and Bob Dole. Dole said the FBI’s investigation was "tainted": The Senate Intelligence Committee’s 1976 investigation found that the FBI categorized King as a communist even before it began its investigation. Dole granted "that various congressional investigations may not have uncovered every piece of information contained in the sealed files. However, there were comprehensive investigations, and I believe that if there was, in fact, anything of significance in the files, it would have been uncovered by now."

The anticommunist rhetoric of J. Edgar Hoover and the Birch Society that Helms was channeling—and which several members of Congress freely applied to King back in 1968—had clearly moved outside the mainstream of respectable language by 1983. Thus Ashbrook, McDonald, and Helms probably helped the pro-holiday forces in 1979 and 1983 more than they hurt them. They made it difficult for Republicans to associate themselves with King opponents. Republicans in the Senate voted two to one in favor of the holiday. Of the six senators who had voted in committee against the holiday back in 1979, five switched to yes votes (all but Orrin Hatch) on the final floor vote in 1983.

Yet more strikingly, southerners—even Strom Thurmond—could no longer go along with the anti-King voices in any sustained public way, even if they wanted to. Black voters now were strong forces in their states in particular (large black populations had been the principal reason that Democrats in those states had resorted to disfranchisement in the first place, around the turn of the twentieth century). A direct assault on a symbol of black power and respect could be disastrous. With the exception of Democrat John Stennis of Mississippi, senators from the Deep South (Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana) all voted for the holiday. The regional base of opposition to the King holiday in the Senate was shifting away from the South and to the West and New Hampshire, where black populations were still among the lowest in the country. The only state Senate delegations to unite against the holiday besides Helms’s North Carolina were Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, South Dakota, Iowa, and New Hampshire.

In the last hour of the King holiday battle, Helms had an opportunity to get his name in the papers. Helms said at one point that he knew he had a "losing cause." Yet he fought on, knowing he could not win. That posture of the lost cause is central to the Ashbrook-McDonald line, the extreme ideological anti-King legacy. It occurs almost as frequently as the conviction that King incited violence and consorted with subversives.

President Reagan soon let it be known "through aides" that he was leaning in favor of signing now. Reagan made that position public at a press conference two weeks later. Reagan’s motives for switching to support of the holiday remain a source of mystery in the minds of some scholars: Robert C. Smith tried to get all Reagan’s papers on the holiday decision released; twenty to twenty-six pages (out of 4,811 pages on the subject known to exist) remain secret. Smith, who believes the number is twenty-six, suggests that Reagan’s designated trustees are trying "to whitewash his record on race." The bill was finally signed on November 2, 1983.

Excerpted from the book "Waking From the Dream" by David Chappell. Copyright (c) 2013 by David Chappell. Reprinted by arrangement Random House.  All rights reserved.

By David L. Chappell

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