Magazine article The New Yorker

Birthday Wishes

Magazine article The New Yorker

Birthday Wishes

Article excerpt

Birthday Wishes

On April 8, 1968, Representative John Conyers, from Detroit, marched through downtown Memphis with Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Harry Belafonte, and thousands of people who had come to that city from across the country. Four days earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot and killed there, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and a fugue of disbelief and despair hovered over the crowd as it continued down the road that King had travelled. The march served as a momentary validation of King's work, but Conyers hoped to craft a more enduring one. That week, he introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that would make King's birthday, January 15th, a national holiday. It languished in committee.

Two months after the assassination, Coretta Scott King founded the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, in Atlanta. It was intended to serve as a wellspring for works of the type to which her husband had dedicated his life, but it was quickly deployed in a secondary mission: to lobby for the holiday, which she later described as "a day of interracial and intercultural cooperation and sharing." In 1971, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King had led, delivered to Congress a petition bearing three million signatures in support of the effort. In 1973, Harold Washington, an Illinois state representative who was later elected the first black mayor of Chicago, sponsored a bill that made his state the first to recognize the holiday. A handful of other states followed, but there was little federal momentum. Coretta Scott King kept up pressure on elected officials, writing, speaking, and testifying twice before congressional committees.

In 1979, a House bill failed by five votes, even though President Jimmy Carter had endorsed it. King then enlisted the aid of Stevie Wonder, who composed "Happy Birthday," a jaunty bit of agit-pop that included the lines "I never understood / how a man who died for good / could not have a day that would / be set aside for his recognition." Finally, in 1983, a bill written by Representatives Jack Kemp, a Republican, and Katie Hall, a Democrat, passed in the House. In the Senate, Jesse Helms, who had denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act as "the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress," tried, unsuccessfully, to have the bill, which was sponsored by Edward Kennedy, sent back to committee. Undaunted, Helms moved to have King's F.B.I. files declassified, so that the Senate might explore the specious claim that he was a Communist stooge. In a fit of anger, Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw a copy of Helms's documents to the floor of the Senate, denouncing them as "filth." The bill passed by a vote of seventy-eight to twenty-two, and President Ronald Reagan, despite initial reluctance, signed it into law, in November of 1983, declaring that Martin Luther King, Jr., Day would be celebrated every year on the third Monday of January.

It had taken fifteen years for Conyers's original gesture to become a legislative reality, a journey that reflected a growing national acceptance of King's ideals of pacifism and racial and economic equality, and a posthumous validation of his approach to social change. Nevertheless, King Day has occupied an awkward niche in the progression of American commemorations. …

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