Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., a day before he was assassinated on his motel balcony. (Charles Kelly/AP)

Across the Commonwealth on Monday, Virginians celebrated Dr. King’s life and legacy. The significance of a day, recognized by the state, honoring Dr. King may be lost on young and new Virginians.

But others will remember the bitter struggle to secure this day that was, at one point in our Commonwealth’s history, anything but a given.

Dr. King believed understanding our nation’s past is an important step to creating a better future. Understanding Virginia’s past on this difficult and complicated issue can provide an important lesson for our future.

For nearly a decade beginning in 1975, Virginia lawmakers, led by then-state Sen. Doug Wilder (D), attempted to build support for legislation establishing Dr. King’s birthday as a state holiday.

They were rebuffed by vetoes from two Republican governors and repeated rejections by the powerful House General Laws committee. Finally, in 1984 a compromise adding Dr. King’s name to an already established day honoring confederate war heroes Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson garnered the support to pass the House General Laws committee. The General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to pass the legislation, and Democratic Governor Chuck Robb signed it into law. 

While most of those who stymied and opposed a holiday in Dr. King’s honor have long since left our politics, at least one important figure still remains. George Allen, now running for reelection to the U.S. Senate, was one of the nine members of the House General Laws committee to reject the holiday. Allen voted against it a second time when the full House of Delegates considered the legislation.

At the time, Allen had a myriad of reasons for his vote.  “We don’t need anymore state holidays in Virginia.  But if we did, it should be reserved for a Virginian,” he told a local paper. The creation of such a holiday would be “tampering with Lee-Jackson Day,”Allen complained. But worst of all, Allen went so far as to call the holiday “demeaning to all those outstanding Virginians who we haven’t honored.”

Allen refused to make the hard, but right, choice of agreeing to an important compromise honoring Dr. King. He was out of step with other leaders in his obstructionist attitude. The previous year, the U.S. Congress, including both of Virginian's Republican senators, approved national legislation establishing a day in Dr. King's honor. Republican President Reagan signed it into law.

In 2000, more than thirty years after Dr. King’s death, Allen changed his stance. He joined a growing chorus of Virginia leaders calling for new legislation that would offer Dr. King his own holiday separate from Lee and Jackson. Allen explained that he had voted against the holiday in part because he thought it was “incongruous and illogical” to honor King on the same day as Lee and Jackson.

But when he was in the House of Delegates, Allen said plainly that he also did not support separate holiday. Allen’s reversal, coinciding with his campaign for the U.S. Senate, appeared to be nothing more than thinly veiled attempt to paper over his past hostility to a celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy.

Virginia and our nation need leaders with the bravery to stand up for what is right and against those who wish to hold us back. We need leaders who share Dr. King’s visionary courage to think beyond the conventional wisdom of the day and guide us toward a better tomorrow.

And, we need leaders with the character and the resolve to make the hard choices that move our Commonwealth and our nation forward.  Virginia’s Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday reminds us that when Virginia needed Allen to be that leader, he wasn’t willing or able.

Donald McEachin, of Richmond, is a Virginia state senator.

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