WHATEVER ELSE VIRGINIA's legislature accomplished this year (and you'd have to do some looking), it handed Gov. John N. Dalton a hot political potato that is now a test of his sensitivities -- personal as well as partisan. The results are due by Monday, which is the deadline for the governor's decision on what to do with a bill designating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a state holiday. For Mr. Dalton, the question now seems to have less to do with Dr. King's birthday than with the political ramifications of approval or veto -- and therein lie several layers of complications.
First -- though we hope not foremost -- the governor reports that he has received almost 3,000 letters on the subject, which is "more mail than I can remember having gotten on any issue since I've been governor." The overwhelming majority of these letters, as one might guess, come not from those who understand and respect the deep sentiment for recognizing Dr. King in this manner -- but rather from strong opponents, including segregationist groups and many of the same business interests that financed Mr. Dalton's campaign four years ago.
The segregationists' mail needs no quoting here, but one example of other opposition comes in these words from Clifford Miller, a Richmond building materials manufacturer who has parted with more than a few dollars for Mr. Dalton's party: "Martin Luther King's not anybody's hero except those who are trying to make trouble. It'd be shameful for the state to honor him."
The predominant sentiment of the letters and calls opposing the bill, according to Dalton aide Charles Davis, has been that Dr. King was not a native Virginian. According to this cosmic logic -- and noted in the mail, apparently -- the native test would still leave the door open to some substitute blacks, such as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. In the best of worlds, presumably, the legislature might consider a variation on the variation they considered at one point this year -- a Lee-Jackson-King Day -- by having a Lee-Jackson-King-Carver-Et Al. Day on the fifth Sunday in February, whenever that occurs.
That is yet another political concern: Word has it that a veto of the bill could hurt J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican attorney general who seeks to succeed Mr. Dalton as governor, and who has said he will attempt to win the state's traditionally Democratic black vote from Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb.
So whom will Gov. Dalton respect or reject -- the decision of the legislature, the narrow views of the anti-King callers and writers or the campaign hopes of his Republican colleague? The real consideration, as well as a decision to approve the measure, should rest on better grounds. The purpose of this legislation transcends Martin Luther King's status as a black civil rights leader. He was a man who spoke as an American about American values, including ones dear to the hearts of native Virginians for generations: liberty, individual rights and the strength of the country and its states. If Gov. Dalton is sensitive to these aspects, he will respect the General Assembly's decision.