Solemn Senate Votes For National Holiday Honoring Rev. King
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 20, 1983; Page A01
The Senate, in a moment of solemn high drama, voted 78 to 22 yesterday to create an official holiday, the nation's 10th, in memory of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
With King's widow, Coretta Scott King, looking down from the dignitaries' gallery, the Republican-controlled Senate followed the Democratic-controlled House in passing the legislation and sent it to President Reagan for his signature.
At his news conference last night, the president said he will sign the bill but would have preferred "a day simliar to Lincoln's birthday, which is not technically a national holiday." As for charges by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) that King was a communist sympathizer, Reagan said: "We'll know in about 35 years, won't we?"--a reference to court-sealed FBI records on King. Story on Page A11
The Senate galleries were packed for the vote, but it passed with quiet dignity after Vice President Bush, who made one of his rare appearances as presiding officer, sternly warned against an emotional response.
The joy came later at a news conference when, flanked by the high command of the civil rights movement, Coretta King said simply, "This is a great day for me personally, for the family, for those of us who believe in the dream, for America and for the world . . . . We are proud to be Americans, but today we are even prouder."
The vote followed a bitter fight over efforts by Helms to scuttle the measure on grounds that King was influenced by communists, a charge that the Senate repudiated repeatedly in votes against Helms' amendments and in a final flurry of condemnation from some of his colleagues yesterday.
But in the end the acrimony was drowned in an outpouring of moving tributes to King and the cause for which he fought and died 15 years ago, victim of an assassin's bullet.
"We owe this special recognition to black Americans who have suffered so much, contributed so much, and with whom we all can celebrate the continuing redemption of America's first and foremost promise of liberty and justice for all," said Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.).
"In a very real sense, he was the second father of our country . . . the prophet of America as one people, free and inseparable, black and white together," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who sat in the gallery with the King family and civil rights leaders during the final vote.
Among Americans honored by official holidays, King is the second, following George Washington. But, as several senators noted during the debate, there is not a single bust of a black American in the Capitol, although a King statue has been commissioned. The last official federal holiday approved by Congress was Columbus Day, approved in 1968.
King's birthday, Jan. 15, will be observed on the third Monday in January, starting in 1986.
However, the Senate demonstrated interest in a bill to observe the birthdays of King, Washington and Columbus on their days, rather than on designated Mondays, thereby saving money because the holidays would fall on weekends in some years. Senate leaders indicated that they would give this and related proposals serious and speedy consideration.
An amendment to shift the three holidays was rejected, 52 to 45, the only close vote during often stormy debate over the measure, and some senators attributed its defeat to the climate created by Helms' attacks on King.
"Unfortunately the well of this debate has been poisoned by a character assassination against Martin Luther King Jr.," said Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.).
But the harshest criticism of Helms came from the normally soft-spoken Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), who alluded to Helms' claim that he and other opponents of the bill were risking "political suicide" by offending blacks.
"No, they are not etching another American profile in courage in this debate," Bradley said. "Far from it. They are running the 'old campaign,' as old as the interaction of race and politics in America. They are playing up to 'old Jim Crow' and all of us know it."
Alluding to Helms' use of Senate rules in fighting against the bill, Bradley said, "If only they had as much respect for the civil rights of all Americans as they do for Senate rules."
In a final series of moves against the bill yesterday, Helms tried to make the King holiday conditional on establishment of holidays for Thomas Jefferson and for Hispanic Americans, which put some of his colleagues in a sticky political situation.
A particularly pained Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who represents a state where Jefferson is revered above all, complained that the move would "compel senators to cast votes against one of the most distinguished Americans." Warner voted "present" on the amendment but joined all other Washington area senators in voting for the bill on final passage.
Both of these Helms amendments received only a handful of votes, as did another Helms' proposal to amend the King bill with a "sense of the Senate" resolution calling on Reagan to pardon Marcus Garvey, who led a back-to-Africa movement in the early 1900s.
Garvey ran afoul of the law over mail fraud in connection with one of his black-nationalist enterprises, and Jamaica Prime Minister P.G. Seaga has asked Reagan to pardon Garvey, who was born in Jamaica and is a hero there.
Helms called Garvey a "father of black nationalism" and said his crime stemmed from an "excess of zeal" for his enterprises, but the Senate rejected his proposal, 92 to 5.
The Senate also easily rejected proposals from Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) to observe King's holiday on a Sunday and to make Lincoln's birthday an official holiday.
In a striking indication of how politics has shifted over the 20 years since southern Democrats led filibusters against civil rights legislation, only one southern Democrat, Sen. John C. Stennis of Mississippi, voted against the King bill.
Most of the other opponents were conservative Republicans and Democrats who had complained about the cost of a new federal holiday. In all, four Democrats and 18 Republicans opposed the bill on final passage.
Although Republicans like Sens. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.), Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Baker had joined Kennedy in leading the push for the legislation, Dole and others said their mail was running strongly against passage of the bill. Some also said privately that they fear Helms' attacks muddied their attempts to put the GOP in the forefront of a civil rights cause.
"As Republicans," said Dole, "we get all the mail and they the Democrats get all the votes."
At the news conference after the vote, Dole attempted to call attention to Republican support, saying, "I'm proud of my party today . . . . We're in the mainstream." Kennedy, without missing a beat, responded, "And we're glad to have that Republican support . . . . "
To the end, Helms kept up his criticism of King and of the campaign to commemorate him with a holiday, saying the bill had passed because of an "atmosphere of intimidation, political harassment . . . screaming and yelling and threats."
Referring to what he called the "theatrics" of Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), when Moynihan hurled a binder of FBI reports on King to the floor on Tuesday and said it was "filth," Helms said: "Maybe they were filth because they accurately portrayed part of King's career."
Asked if he was acting from racial motives, Helms said, "I'm not a racist, I'm not a bigot. You ask any black who knows me . . . . " He also denied that he was using the King bill to bolster his reelection campaign in North Carolina, although he conceded that he might use it in fund-raising efforts.
"I'm not going to say it's not going to be mentioned. You do the best you can with what you have," he added.
He said he was fighting the bill out of conviction, not politics. "If I were a politician, I'd not be doing half the things I'm doing in the Senate," said Helms.