Legislation to create a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. died in a Virginia House of Delegates committee today after opponents argued the state's blacks are not entitled to their own holiday.
The 10-to-6 defeat drew immediate criticism from supporters of the measure, who claimed Gov. Charles S. Robb had not done enough to help ensure passage. "I wish the governor's office had taken a much more decisive stand," said Jack Gravely, executive director of the state NAACP.
"I didn't ask Robb to do anything, and I think the record will show he did nothing," said Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond), sponsor of the bill and the Senate's only black. "Some people may be disconcerted that more effort wasn't made by more people."
Robb said earlier he would sign the bill, already approved by the Senate, if it reached his desk, but acknowledged this week the King holiday proposal was not among his administration's top legislative priorities.
A similar measure cleared both houses of the General Assembly last year, but was vetoed by then-Gov. John N. Dalton. The effort to honor King was an issue in last fall's gubernatorial election, which Robb won with the help of heavy black support.
Proponents argued today that passage of the bill would cap an eight-year struggle on behalf of more than 1 million black Virginia voters. But foes told the House General Laws Committee it would be inappropriate for the state to honor King, who was not born in Virginia, when it had not chosen to honor such state notables as Thomas Jefferson and Booker T. Washington.
Blacks "just want to have a national holiday," said George Burrus of the Mechanicsville-based Independent Virginians for Political Action, a conservative budget and tax watchdog group that claims 700 members. "Why don't they do like the Irish or Jewish people do? They don't ask for the government to be shut down on St. Patrick's Day or the Jewish New Year."
The statement drew nervous laughter from committee members and spectators.
Opponents have long argued that a special holiday for King would be too costly and would disrupt state government by allowing Virginia's 90,000 public employes to miss a day's work. They also argue that King's civil rights activities are not suitable for statewide recognition.
"I don't believe in giving this man a holiday, considering his causes and what he believed in," Edward Breeden of Henrico County told the committee. "It would be dishonoring the nation."
Gravely and Wilder avoided characterizing the committee's decision as racially motivated. Gravely said, however, that much of the blame for the measure's defeat should be placed on House Speaker A.L. Philpott, a conservative Southside lawyer who championed the state's "massive resistance" to school integration.
Philpott this year removed the General Laws Committee's only black member, Del. James S. Christian Jr. (D-Richmond), and filled committee vacancies with Republicans who opposed the King legislation. Philpott denied the action was intended to stack the committee against the King bill.
"Mr. Philpott has not in my estimation been a friend of black people in Virginia," said Gravely, adding that he expects the measure's defeat to become a major issue in this fall's political campaigns. "We're not going to get mad--we're going to try to get even," he said.
Among those voting against the bill was Del. Gwendalyn Cody (R-Fairfax). The other Northern Virginians on the panel, Fairfax Republicans Warren Barry and Frank Medico, abstained from voting without citing a reason.