Lawmakers reflect on MLK Day ‘no’ votes

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Race relations have been central to political debates in recent months, from the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers in New York and Missouri to the recent revelation that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) spoke to a white supremacist group back in 2002.

The additional detail that Scalise also once voted against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday has reopened an old debate.

The King holiday used to be controversial, only passing the House more than 10 years after Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) filed the first bill calling for a day to commemorate the slain civil rights icon. The measure eventually passed in 1983. Ninety representatives and 22 senators voted against it.

{mosads}The debate is now essentially settled. Lawmakers typically spend their Martin Luther King Jr. holidays back at home with constituents, attending memorial events and touting the nation’s progress.

There are only six current members of Congress who previously voted against creating a national holiday for King. Another small handful did so at the state level.

The six who cast votes against the national holiday are all Republicans: Sens. Richard Shelby (Ala.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), John McCain (Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah), as well as Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Hal Rogers (Ky.). Shelby cast his vote as a Democrat, before he switched parties.

Steve Klein, a spokesman for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, said that the dwindling number of lawmakers opposing the holiday shows progress.

“It also shows that people mature and get wiser and they get to understand that what Dr. King was talking about was really the American dream,” he told The Hill.

Referring to opposition to the holiday, he added, “There are probably very few congressional districts left where that attitude is a big winner.”

A Grassley spokesperson noted that the senator has been “very active in several African-American causes,” including efforts to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act when he joined the Senate in the early 1980s. More recently, he has advocated for black farmers who had been discriminated against when applying for financial help.

“Senator Grassley’s vote against an MLK Day holiday was purely an economic decision both in the cost to the broader economy in lost productivity, and the cost to the taxpayers with the federal government closed,” the aide told The Hill in an email.  

While running for president in 1999, McCain said he had made a mistake, telling the late Tim Russert of NBC he regretted that vote.

“If you change your opinion by result of experience, then I don’t think people hold that against you,” McCain told The Hill last week.

McCain was in a Viet Cong prison on the day King was assassinated. When he ran for president in 2008, McCain honored King on the 40th anniversary of his death by giving a speech in Memphis.

Still, he insisted that 1983, when he took his vote against the MLK holiday, was a long time ago.

“I know that it was not an issue in my presidential campaign,” he told The Hill.

McCain’s home state wrestled with recognizing the holiday. Arizona’s governor first declared a King holiday through executive order, but the next governor repealed it. Voters eventually approved the holiday in 1992.

Hatch referred to the vote as “one of the worst decisions I have made as a senator” in an essay published in the book If I Only Knew Then … by Charles Grodin. He added that while he voted against it partly because of the productivity cost of another federal holiday, he failed to realize that “legislation often goes beyond cold policy calculations.”

Two other current lawmakers also voted against the holiday on the state level: Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

Isakson’s vote came in 1984, after a ten-year struggle to recognize the holiday on the state level. After King holiday advocates repeatedly pushed the change, lawmakers agreed on a bill described by The New York Times at the time as one to designate all federal holidays as state holidays, as well as two other holidays to honor confederate leaders and soldiers.

“Had I to do it all over, I would have voted differently in the Georgia House, and I think my actions throughout my career in honor of the holiday and of Dr. King’s life have demonstrated that,” Isakson said in a statement provided to The Hill.

His office added that he’s co-sponsored legislation supporting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and another to award the Congressional Gold Medal to victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., on the tragedy’s 50th anniversary. He also introduced a bill to encourage the National Park Service to preserve King’s papers.  

Culberson’s vote came in 1991 while the Texan served in the state House. A number of future lawmakers, including Reps. Kevin Brady (R), Henry Cuellar (D), and Kenny Marchant (R), and former Rep. Pete Gallego (D) all served in the Texas Legislature during that vote and backed the bill.

His office didn’t return a request for comment on his vote.

There were about a dozen states for which The Hill could not obtain roll call votes on making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday.

Klein said that no one at the King Center harbors any “animosity” against those who opposed the holiday through decades of contentious battles. He said that for every one person who still holds onto the “antiquated animosities of the civil rights movement,” thousands more have changed. 

“You’ve got to allow room for people to grow. People can change but you’ve got to give them room to change,” he told The Hill.

“The arc of history is definitely bending in a much more humane and progressive point of view, and the appreciation for Dr. King is growing every single year.”

— Scott Wong contributed

Tags Chuck Grassley John Culberson John McCain Johnny Isakson Martin Luther King Martin Luther King Day MLK Day Orrin Hatch Richard Shelby

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