By David Kurlander

President Biden on June 17th signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s opposition to the bill, which he centered around the $600 million cost of adding another paid holiday for federal employees. Joanne called Johnson’s gambit “an easy way and seemingly politically correct way to protest against something that you don’t want to happen.” The cost argument around the creation of federal holidays is not a new strategy. In 1983, during the congressional debate over making Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday, the arch-conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms used a similar argument—and then many others—in a crusade against the celebration.

Only four days after King’s killing in April 1968, Michigan Representative John Conyers introduced the first King Birthday Bill. He reintroduced the same bill, to grant a paid federal holiday on the third Monday in January in honor of the slain leader, each year.

In November 1979, after languishing for a decade, the bill nearly passed the House. Republican Tennessee Representative Robin Beard pushed through an amendment, however, that would have scheduled the holiday for the third Sunday in January, rather than the third Monday. “One more day of closed doors for federal employees is absolutely unacceptable,” Beard said. “It’s time to be sensitive to the feelings of the taxpayers.” Once Beard’s amendment passed, the Congressional Black Caucus tabled the proposal, arguing that the weekend allocation was a dishonor to King’s legacy.

On January 15th, 1981, 250,000 supporters of a King holiday marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Stevie Wonder, increasingly the public face of the movement, sang his hit song, “Happy Birthday”: “I just never understood / How a man who died for good / Could not have a day that would / Be set aside for his recognition.” Wonder followed up the march by orchestrating a petition with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. They presented 6 million signatures in favor of the bill to House Speaker Tip O’Neill. 

1983 was the 20th anniversary of King’s March on Washington. Conyers and Indiana Representative Katie B. Hall called a Capitol Hill strategy session on King’s birthday. Simultaneously, President Reagan held a King celebration at the White House. While extensively praising King, Reagan ignored the holiday debate. 

A week after King’s birthday, however, Reagan’s hand was forced. An Atlanta high school student named Donna Frazier asked the President during a White House Q&A, “Do you oppose or support making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday?” Reagan responded, “To make it a national holiday in the sense of businesses closing down and government closing down and everyone not working? I’d like to call your attention to [the fact that] we only really have a couple of those…not even Abraham Lincoln has that kind of a national holiday.” 

Despite Reagan’s resistance, Conyers and Hall pushed the bill ahead in Congress. On August 2nd, 1983, the House passed the King Birthday Bill in a lopsided 338-90 vote. A vocal Republican resistance still made the cost argument. California Republican William E. Dannemeyer argued for the Sunday holiday plan, suggesting that King “stood for jobs and work.” But 89 Republicans joined all but one Democrat in supporting the measure, with New York’s rising GOP star Jack Kemp retracting his earlier opposition, saying “the American Revolution will not be complete until we complete the Civil Rights revolution.”  

Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker, another Republican supporter of the holiday, attempted to introduce the bill in the Senate in August. Baker withdrew the bill after Helms, a conservative television magnate who made waves with his wide-ranging investigations and extreme views, threatened a filibuster. On October 3rd, Baker at last called up the measure. Helms initially took the floor with the cost argument, suggesting that the bill could run the government $12 billion in lost labor—a number that Helms’ Senate colleagues immediately refuted. “The ironic thing to me is that Black citizens, who, above all others, need jobs, would ask, demand this Senate to pass this legislation without any hearings,” Helms continued.

Kansas Republican Senator Bob Dole responded sharply to Helms: “To those who would worry about cost, I would suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.”

Helms quickly expanded his critiques beyond money, lobbing personal and political attacks against King. He argued that King’s nonviolence was “a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities.” He also argued that King engaged in “action-oriented Marxism.” 

 Baker tabled the bill for two weeks. When the Senate resumed debate on October 18th, the vitriol only escalated. Helms passed out a thick binder of public documents detailing the FBI’s mid-1960s surveillance of King’s associations with communist-affiliated leaders. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the binder “a packet of filth” and flung his copy at Helms’ feet. 

When Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy rose to add further renunciation of the tactic, Helms—referencing Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s initial approval of wiretaps on King—said, “His argument is with his dead brother who was President and his dead brother who was Attorney General.” 

Kennedy, visibly angry, responded, “If Robert Kennedy were alive today, he would be the first person to say that it was wrong ever to wiretap Martin Luther King…I am appalled at the attempt of some to misappropriate the memory of my brother.” 

The day after Helms’ binder distribution, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 78-22. Coretta Scott King smiled in the Senate Gallery. Vice President Bush assured her after the passage that President Reagan would sign the bill. Helms called a solo news conference to defend himself: “I am not a racist. I am not a bigot. Ask any Black who knows me. I knew from the beginning it was a losing cause.”

The controversy, however, was not over. At President Reagan’s press conference later the same day, a reporter asked the President whether King was a “communist sympathizer.” Reagan, parroting a Helms talking point by bringing up the release of the full FBI files on King, responded, “Well, we’ll see in about 35 years, won’t we?” 

Reagan called Coretta Scott King shortly after to apologize. She accepted, saying, “I told him we all make mistakes and that I attribute it to human error.” Reagan signed the bill, with Coretta Scott King standing over his shoulder, on November 2nd, 1983. “Martin Luther King Jr. and his spirit live within all of us,” she said at the ceremony.

In a magisterial New Republic piece published in 1986, the year that the bill went into effect, King biographer Taylor Branch reflected on the significance of the Senate debate: “Race, scandal, war, communism, money, religion—all the most volatile subjects of political discourse converged to shake the Senate briefly from its famous languid decorum.” Branch also highlighted the irony of Reagan’s role, reminding readers that the President had in 1983 alone proposed tax exemptions for segregated schools and mounted an attack on affirmative action.

Branch ultimately saw the intense debate around the emergence of the holiday as a reflection of the long road to realizing King’s larger dreams of equality: “In death as in life, King’s followers struggle for recognition while King himself reaches for something deeper and almost unfathomable. All this makes for an uneasy new holiday, mysterious in origin and meaning.” 

Juneteenth, like King’s birthday,  is now enshrined as a federal holiday. Debates continue to rage over the appropriate way to celebrate President’s Day, Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day, and the Fourth of July. One thing is clear, though: when the argument against a holiday is about cost, it’s probably not really about cost. 

In addition to Branch’s piece, “Uneasy Holiday,” check out investigative reporter David J. Garrow’s in-depth 1984 Helms exposé, “The Helms Attack on King.” For more on Helms, check out the May 2020 Time Machine article, “An Unwise and Dangerous Precedent”: Jesse Helms’ War on State Department Inspectors General.

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