The Moment That Carried This Day

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.

The next day, The Post ran a front-page story about Helms's remarks. Helms defended his statement and continued questioning King's patriotism. The debate drew attention. As the vote loomed later that month, some senators switched sides out of fear of being associated with Helms's views.

The legislation passed.

Right after the Senate vote, which I watched from the packed gallery, I rushed in excitement to the room that had been set aside for a reception. Not seeing anyone there, I turned around. I remember hearing a thunderous sound coming toward me. A crowd turned the corner, and there were Kennedy, Coretta Scott King, other famous civil rights leaders and so many other supporters filling the long hall. As they walked, arm in arm, they began singing "We Shall Overcome." It was a glorious moment.

President Reagan signed the bill, but the fight over the holiday continued. Some states initially refused to honor it, and it was years before the last holdouts -- New Hampshire and Arizona -- acknowledged the day.

Perhaps all of us can pause, on this day free of work, and think not of politics or acrimony but of the three surviving King children. This is a day for Americans to think of those who seek freedom from want and injustice, especially the children in our nation and around the world who need others to stand up on their behalf. Dr. King's dream will be alive and well if each of us does what we can for the most vulnerable in our midst.

Allison Silberberg is a writer living in Alexandria. Her e-mail address isallisonsilb@aol.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company