The Moment That Carried This Day

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956. (Michael Ochs Archives Via Getty Images)
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By Allison Silberberg
Monday, January 21, 2008

As we honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, it bears remembering how the holiday came to be.

The legislation proposing creation of a federal holiday was not at all assured in the fall of 1983. The Democratic-controlled House had passed its bill in August with bipartisan support, but Democrats in the GOP-controlled Senate faced a fight despite support from some prominent Republicans. President Ronald Reagan was against this type of memorial. Many Republicans said they opposed it for economic reasons, arguing that our nation couldn't afford another federal holiday.

At the time, I was an intern for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and was following the bill carefully. It's fair to say I was rather devoted to the cause. I remember the October day that someone in the office mentioned that the senator's speechwriter, Bob Shrum, had crafted an incredible statement in support of the holiday. I begged for permission to go to the galleries above the Senate floor to watch Kennedy deliver the speech.

The galleries and the Senate were nearly empty when Kennedy walked onto the floor. I saw only three members -- Kennedy, the senator who was presiding, and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who was speaking against the holiday.

After several minutes, Helms said that he thought it "ironic" that "black citizens" were the ones who most needed jobs and yet were demanding a holiday. The few of us in the gallery gasped. Helms said repeatedly that the legislation was being railroaded through the Senate without proper hearings. Having heard enough, Kennedy rose to ask Helms to yield. Helms refused. Kennedy sat down and waited, reviewing his remarks. A few minutes later, he rose again, but Helms still held the floor. Finally, Helms said he would conclude -- and then he uttered the words that turned the tide of the whole debate.

Helms had been speaking about the negative economic effects of a federal holiday, but he announced that he also opposed the holiday because King had used "nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities" and that King supported "action-oriented Marxism." Then he yielded the floor.

Kennedy rose, his face reddening with anger. He put his prepared remarks aside and began to explain that Helms's statement was exactly why our nation needed this holiday. The words seemed to come from deep within him. Kennedy said Helms's comments took him back to an uglier time in America, a time that King courageously fought to correct, as Kennedy's own brothers had.

Helms, who had been leaving the chamber, returned. "Will the senator please yield the floor?" he shouted.

"No, I will not yield the floor," Kennedy replied.

As Kennedy spoke, other senators appeared, trying to see what the commotion was about. The doors to the press gallery flew open, and reporters rushed forward and peered over the railing with notepads in hand. It was like a scene from a movie.

I was moved as Kennedy spoke about how it was critical to fight intolerance in our land, about how every generation needs to build bridges of understanding. He wanted the holiday to remind Americans that our nation must ensure equal opportunity for all and said that King had died fighting for that inalienable right.

It was his finest hour, and Helms's worst.

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