A day before he decided to expel two of the students involved, University of Oklahoma president David Boren offered a scathing condemnation of fraternity members who had participated in a racist chant. But in explaining Monday what he hoped the university would learn from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon episode, Boren referred to his previous career, as a U.S. senator. “I remember when I voted for the Martin Luther King holiday,” he said. “I received about 100,000 letters not approving.”

Boren added that the fallout over the racist SAE video that went viral and the much earlier controversy over the 1983 vote to make Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday are moments that “make us aware that there are still tinges of racism” in America. 

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The reference came as Boren tried to explain his strong reaction to the incident in which SAE members were filmed making the racist chant. “The whole society has to change, and we’ve continued to change, and that’s the reason why I was so — I guess I’m too old to be shocked — but, taken aback when this happened,” Boren said in response to a question about past racial tension on campus.

Boren has spoken of the response to his MLK vote before, including 13 years ago to the student paper the Oklahoma Daily:

“It was a hard decision,” said Boren, now president of the University of Oklahoma. “My mail was running decidedly against it.
After the vote, Boren wrote a seven-page letter to each person who expressed negative opinions by calling his office in Oklahoma. He said that a lot of the responses were from people who said he changed their minds, while others respected his decision, despite disagreeing with him. Still, there were others that did not like the idea or his vote.
“I thought the vote was less about Martin Luther King as a person,” Boren said. “But more about the inclusive nature of the American Society that is a place of equal opportunity for all.”

The senators from Oklahoma were split on MLK Day: Boren, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate from 1979 until 1994, voted for it. Sen. Don Nickles, a socially and fiscally conservative Republican, voted against it.

The bill ultimately passed on Oct. 20 1983, with  78 votes for the holiday and 22 against. Among the nays: then-freshman Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who filibustered the bill, reading a paper on the Senate floor alleging that King had communist ties. Helms also proposed several amendments in an effort to get the Senate to abandon the MLK Day proposal.

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Grassley’s office has since said that his vote against the federal holiday “was purely an economic decision.” As it turned out, Boren was also concerned about the economic impact of adding another federal holiday to the calendar — but he also believed that it should be a federal holiday.

He proposed a way to reconcile those two positions, introducing an idea that would have set Columbus Day, President’s Day and MLK Day on specific dates of the year, rather than on Mondays. The change would have meant that the holidays would occasionally fall on weekends, which Boren believed would save money over time, with fewer federal holidays on the work-week calendar.

Here’s what Boren said in introducing that measure, according to the Congressional Record:

The fact is that this vote has become a symbolic vote. It has gone far beyond a vote about the record or personality of one man. It has become a way of expressing the hope of the American people that we can have reconciliation between the races and equal opportunity for all of our citizens.

He continued:

No other racial or ethnic group in our history has been treated in such a manner. No other group was brought to these shores as slaves, against their will. Of the scores of statues in the U.S. Capitol Building, there is not one which honors a representative of this particular race. It is not hard to understand why this vote has become a symbol to so many Americans.
Many black Americans clearly regard this vote not as a vote on any one man, his achievements, or his human shortcomings, but as a vote for or against accepting them as full-fledged, equal members of American society. It has become a way of saying that the contribution of millions of Americans both in peace and in war where their sons laid down their lives for our country, is fully recognized by all of the American people. Congress has been asked to say symbolically that our Nation has taken a step toward putting the discrimination of the past behind us and toward committing ourselves to the brotherhood and sisterhood of allof our people. Mr. President, like many others in this body, I believe that there is a moral compulsion to make this symbolic expression, to affirm that all of us as Americans, of every race, color, and creed, desire to walk hand in hand as brothers and sisters in God’s human family.”

Boren’s amendment failed, but the bill passed.

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