Helms Stalls King's Day In Senate
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesady, October 4, 1983; Page A01
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), charging that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused "action-oriented Marxism" and other "radical political" views, yesterday temporarily blocked Senate action on a House-passed bill to create a new national holiday in memory of the slain civil rights leader.
Helms' assault on King, which prompted a scathing denunciation from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), came as the White House was putting out word that President Reagan intends to sign the measure, even though the administration once had opposed it.
Helms had hardly begun his attack on the bill when Senate leaders of both parties, including Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the conservative chairman of the Judiciary Committee, filed a cloture petition to shut off debate and bring the bill to a vote, perhaps as early as Wednesday.
And Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), floor manager for the legislation, acerbically attacked the contention by Helms and other critics of the bill that another federal holiday would be costly for the economy. "Since when did a dollar sign take its place atop our moral code?" Dole asked.
Although Helms' colleagues had expected his effort to derail the bill by sending it to committee for hearings, the tone of his attack--linking King to what he called "the official policy of communism"--appeared to take them by surprise.
"I will not dignify Helms' comments with a reply. They do not reflect credit on this body," an angry Kennedy said, adding that what Helms said should be "shunned by the American people, including the citizens of his own state." Later, Kennedy accused Helms of using "Red smear" tactics.
Asked before television cameras to say whether he considered King a "Marxist-Leninist," as he had suggested earlier on the Senate floor, Helms at first demurred, then said, "But the old saying--if it has webbed feet, if it has feathers and it quacks, it's a you-know-what." Asked again later if he considered King a Marxist, Helms said, "I don't think there is any question about that."
When asked if his attack on King would cause him political trouble in North Carolina, where he faces a tough race for reelection next year, Helms said bluntly, "I'm not going to get any black votes, period."
The bill, approved 338 to 90 in the House two months ago, would set aside the third Monday in January as the 10th official federal holiday. After the Democratic-controlled House approved the measure, Senate Republican leaders swung quickly behind it, and the White House indicated that Reagan probably would sign it despite earlier reservations about the cost.
Helms began his attack by suggesting the bill's cost in loss of productivity could be as high as $12 billion a year, although the Congressional Budget Office has said it would be more like $18 million. He also said it was being "steamrollered" through the Senate without hearings, although hearings had been held on the House side.
But it was Helms' attack on King himself that drew the most notice.
A federal holiday should be an occasion for "shared values," but King's "very name itself remains a source of tension, a deeply troubling symbol of divided society," Helms said.
Helms said King had used "nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities."
He asserted that there were Marxists in King's movement and that King had been warned against them by the president at the time, apparently meaning President Kennedy.
Added Helms: "I think most Americans would feel that the participation of Marxists in the planning and direction of any movement taints that movement at the outset . . . . Others may argue that Dr. King's thought may have been merely Marxist in its orientation. But the trouble with that is that Marxism-Leninism, the official philosphy of communism, is an action-oriented revolutionary doctrine. And Dr. King's action-oriented Marxism, about which he was cautioned by the leaders of this country, including the president at that time, is not compatible with the concepts of this country."
Kennedy was joined by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in disavowing Helms' charges. Specter, calling King a "Herculean figure on the American scene," credited an appearance by King in Philadelphia with being a "stabilizing influence" that prevented rioting there in the 1960s.
Said Dole: "To those who would worry about cost, I would suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination."