As the US grapples, again and again, with voting rights and civil rights, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday has again become political.
Heirs to King argued Americans should not celebrate the national holiday without passage of a new federal voting rights standard that is stalled in the Senate.
Democrats in the chamber had used the peg of the holiday as a deadline for action on bills to set that voting rights standard, but the deadline has come and gone, with senators set to carry on with debate on Tuesday, though little movement is likely even after a forceful speech from President Joe Biden and a visitto Capitol Hill last week.
“We are not here to celebrate,” Martin Luther King III stressed Saturday. “We are tired of being patient” on voting rights.
Honoring King with political action is a new pivot for the holiday, which former President Barack Obama had in recent years pushed as a national day of service.
But Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat, already effectively killed the voting rights push Thursday. She supports the bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — but she opposes breaking a Republican-led filibuster and changing Senate rules to pass voting rights bills with a simple majority.
King III and other King family members rallied in Phoenix for a voting rights bill on Saturday, the anniversary of King’s birthday.
The history of the holiday includes another filibuster, nearly 39 years ago, on the Senate floor, when GOP Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina did everything in his power to oppose commemorating King’s birthday with a national holiday.
It was an ugly scene when Helms spread rumors about King, whom he tried to smear as a communist, alluding to FBI files about him.
Helms repeatedly squared off with Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, over the holiday during debate on the Senate floor, according to a Washington Post account.
At another point, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, threw a binder of FBI reports about King to the floor in the Senate chamber, calling them “filth.”
Helms’ accusations about King centered on the idea he was a radical communist, and Helms sought the early unsealing of FBI documents.
FBI documents unsealed in recent years, rather than showing King to be a communist, have shown the FBI to have shamefully targeted him, kept him under surveillance and actively tried to undermine him. More FBI information related to King is set to be released in 2027.
The FBI’s efforts against King during his lifetime, led by longtime director J. Edgar Hoover, have been acknowledged as a blot on the bureau by subsequent leaders like former FBI Director James Comey, who called King’s treatment “the darkest part of the bureau’s history” in a recent documentary, “MLK/FBI.”
King’s contribution to society and his status as the American symbol for persistence and progress on civil rights is universal. The filibuster against honoring his birth was ultimately broken in an overwhelming 78-22 vote by a GOP-controlled Senate and signed into law, albeit reluctantly, by Reagan.
Numerous southern states, and Sinema’s Arizona, refused to immediately celebrate it and dragged on for years qualifying their respect. Alabama and Virginia insisted on pairing celebration of King, born on January 15, with celebration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who was born on January 19.
Many Americans have evolved in their respect for celebrating MLK Day.
The late Sen. John McCain, then a congressman, voted “no” when the House overwhelmingly approved the holiday in 1983.
But as presidential candidate in 2008, the Arizona Republican said he had been wrong.
“We can be slow as well to give greatness its due, a mistake I myself made long ago when I voted against a federal holiday in memory of Dr. King. I was wrong,” he said, according to CNN’s report at the time. “I was wrong, and eventually realized it in time to give full support — full support — for a state holiday in my home state of Arizona. I’d remind you that we can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans.”
Sinema, although she’s a Democrat, has tried to model her political career after McCain, who put forward an image of independence and frequently bucked his party.
On the issue of voting rights, by refusing to change filibuster rules, Sinema is certainly bucking Democrats.