For that noisy band of self-loathing Americans, there was bad news in last week's vote by the House to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday. For the remaining 98 percent of Americans, that House action, by a lopsided 338-90 vote, was very good news indeed. Racial prejudice has declined so significantly in the United States that the white politician who appears to be anti-black hurts himself with white voters. The King vote and the House debate that preceded it were a compliment to the growing tolerance and maturity of white Americans.
Obviously not all House opponents of the King holiday bill were opponents of equal rights. Some Republican House members with strong civil rights records objected to the suspension of rules the proponents employed. Other critics spoke of the cost of another holiday to a struggling economy. But with the exception of John Birch Society member Larry McDonald (D-Ga.), the debate was free of the ugly personal attacks on Dr. King that had occurred in the past.
While the House action on the King holiday may not justify a national festival of self-congratulation, it does inflict serious bodily harm upon the self-loathers who delight in reminding us what racists we are and have always been. That is just not true. Gallup polls disclose and personal experience documents that we are more tolerant than we were 25 years ago, when only 38 percent of Americans said they would vote for a well-qualified black presidential candidate nominated by their party. Today that figure has more than doubled to 77 percent of our citizens.
Of course, there are very practical political considerations involved. The White House let it be known that President Reagan's opposition to the King holiday was subject to change. The Reagan people do not realistically expect to win black votes in 1984 by this change, not after the administration's embrace of segregationist Bob Jones University and its underwhelming as well as overdue support for the extension of the Voting Rights Act after it had been passed by both houses. But the president cannot afford to be seen--by white Republican and Democratic voters-- as anti-minority.
This is confirmed by a look at his schedule. The president's relentless wooing of Hispanic voters continues without pause. Reagan seems to have learned that in matters of civil rights, past personal stands do not compensate for lack of presidential leadership. Ronald Reagan undoubtedly rooted for Joe Louis against Max Schmeling and for Jackie Robinson against the bigots of baseball. But now Joe Louis is in Arlington Cemetery and Jackie Robinson is in Cooperstown, and the United States, thank goodness, has changed and improved. We are more tolerant. Thanks to the courage and the decency and the leadership of Americans like Martin Luther King Jr., we have overcome a lot.