Rep. Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) civil rights record has been under a media microscope in recent weeks, after a Louisiana reporter discovered that the House Majority Whip had spoken at a 2002 White Supremacist convention organized by a group founded by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. But while his 2004 vote against Louisiana’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day put him in a small minority at the time, he was far from the only legislator who fought against commemorating the slain civil rights leader over the decades-long fight to create a nationwide King holiday. And several of the opponents remain in legislative office even today.
After King’s assassination in 1968, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the first Congressional legislation to create a federal Martin Luther King Day holiday. In the years that followed, Congress held congressional hearings during which hostile witnesses said “violence was exactly what [King] wanted,” and that King formed a “common front” with the “virulently racist Nation of Islam.”
More than 15 years later, Congress finally enacted such a law. The bill, signed by President Ronald Reagan, passed in the Senate on a 78–22 vote and in the House of Representatives by a 338 to 90 margin. The most vocal opponents included the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), who mounted a 16-day filibuster of the proposal and smeared King as a Communist.
Voting with Helms against the King holiday were four men who remain in the Senate today: Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Banking Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-AZ). Shelby and McCain were in the House at the time. House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) and House Judiciary Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) also voted against the proposal. McCain apologized in 2008 for being too slow “to give greatness its due,” and Hatch wrote in 2007 that the vote was “one of the worst decisions” he has made as a senator.
The fight to get a state law in all 50 states took even longer. While some states moved quickly — Illinois enacted its law in 1973 — others lagged behind.
In 1999, New Hampshire’s mammoth state house of representatives (212 to 148) and smaller state senate (19 to 5) finally enacted a law proponents had been pushing for more than a decade, to adopt King day. Since 1993, the state had observed a generic “Civil Rights Day” instead. Two of the state representatives who opposed the change now serve in the leadership of the state senate: Charles “Chuck” Morse (R) is now the Senate president and Gary Daniels (R) is now chairman of the capital budget committee. On his campaign website today, Daniels has an entire section highlighting his support for “States’ Rights” (King observed in a 1960 speech that “Most of the glaring denials, of basic freedoms in the south” were “done in the name of ‘states’ rights.’”) Fifteen opponents still serve in the state House of Representatives including controversial Deputy Speaker Gene Chandler (R), Criminal Justice and Public Safety chair John Tholl (R), Criminal Justice and Public Safety Vice Chairman David Welch (R), Finance Chairman Neal Kurk (R), Ronald Belander (R), David Bickford (R), Lars Christiansen (R), Robert Fesh (R), Jeffrey Goley (D), Mary Griffin (R), Richard Marple (R), Betsy McKinney (R), Sherman Packard (R), Anne Priestley (R), and Kenneth Weyler (R).
A year later, Utah’s legislature agreed to rename its “Human Rights Day” to honor King. The state’s house passed the bill 54 to 17, though current state senator Margaret Dayton (R) and representative Melvin R. Brown (R) were among the no votes. Dayton objected to the idea of naming holidays after individuals and successfully moved to also rename the state’s President’s Day holiday after Presidents Washington and Lincoln.
Rep. Scalise also opposed a resolution in Louisiana in 1996 expressing regret for slavery (now-U.S. Senator David Vitter (R) helped him water down the language but backed the weakened version). A similar measure in Maryland passed in 2007 unanimously in the state senate and with 5 no-votes in the state’s house of delegates. Three of those opponents — Delegates Richard K. Impallaria (R), Patrick McDonough (R), and Warren E. Miller (R) — are still serving. Reps. Impallaria and McDonough have earned cheers from commentators on a popular white supremacist forum for their anti-immigrant activism and McDonough received bipartisan criticism for comments in 2012 warning of “roving mobs of black youths” near Baltimore’s inner harbor.