House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, Coretta Scott King and singer Stevie Wonder took a 15-year-old crusade to a House subcommittee yesterday, once again urging that Congress declare Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
"Martin Luther King was America's Gandhi," O'Neill said of the slain civil rights leader, in a rare appearance before a House panel. "He taught us, all of us, how to change our society for the better and how to do it peacefully . . . If I have anything to say about it, Martin Luther King will have his day."
The current bill to make Jan. 15 a legal holiday is sponsored by 143 members of Congress and 29 senators. A staff aide to the subcommittee holding yesterday's hearing said the panel hopes to act on the measure by the end of this month.
Civil rights leaders and black legislators have been pushing for the legislation since 1968, the year the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis. The measure, introduced in each Congress by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), won a majority vote in the House in 1979 but still failed because it had been brought up under procedures requiring a two-thirds majority of the House.
That year the bill was boosted by the support of President Carter, but President Reagan opposes the proposal. Longtime supporters of the legislation decided earlier this year to shift their strategy from marches and demonstrations to lobbying for the bill.
O'Neill and other witnesses before the House Post Office and Civil Service census and population subcommittee yesterday rejected an alternative proposal offered by Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.) to make the third Sunday in January a day of prayer and remembrance of King, which would avoid the costs of a paid holiday by the federal government.
"There are so many Sunday remembrances," O'Neill said. "It's Cap Day in Boston for the Red Sox."
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Congress never considered making Washington's Birthday a Sunday remembrance.
"National recognition of Dr. King is especially timely now, when fundamental rights such as the right to open housing, the right to integrated schools, and the right to equal opportunity--issues for which Dr. King literally gave his life--are threatened more seriously than at any time in the history of this land," Kennedy said.
Coretta Scott King, the civil rights leader's widow, said she has "listened patiently" over the past 15 years to the objections to the holiday legislation, including assertions that King was a Communist and courted violence. "These assertions have no merit and I am confident that the increasing support for a national holiday in his honor is evidence that they are rejected by the great majority of the American people," she said.
Several states and cities--including the District of Columbia, Alexandria and Maryland--already observe King's birthday as a legal public holiday.