Nearly 40 years have flown by since Congress approved a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
Then-President Ronald Reagan signed the measure into law, a decision that led state governments to consider whether they also should establish a holiday recognizing the murdered civil rights champion.
New Mexico’s debate dragged on longer than most. Forty-one states had approved a holiday honoring King when New Mexico lawmakers took up the question in 1987.
It brought about stalling, revisionist history and a desperate legislative maneuver. The story should be taught in every public high school, as it reveals more about government and politics than a hundred field trips to the Capitol.
Lawmakers arrived in Santa Fe to start their 1987 session knowing gridlock could kill any bill for a holiday honoring King.
Democrats dominated the House of Representatives 47-23, and most in that chamber believed King was an important figure in world history. The bill cleared the House in a breeze, 51-10.
The Senate was another story. It was composed of 21 Republicans and 21 Democrats. A bloc of conservative senators mobilized to bottle up the bill.
They argued the public shouldn’t bear the expense of another state holiday. Some also said they didn’t believe King was worthy, even after his successes in desegregating institutions and peacefully destroying a system that had made it nearly impossible for Black people in the Deep South to vote.
Then-Sen. Harold Foreman, R-Las Cruces, was among the opponents of a holiday recognizing King. Now 84, Foreman told me his view hasn’t changed.
“I look at it the same way now. He was an activist. Others were activists,” he said.
Several senators aligned with Foreman realized economic arguments were safer than challenging King’s record of securing civil rights for oppressed people. These senators asked how the state could afford up to $1 million more for another holiday.
They sent the bill to the Finance Committee, often a graveyard for legislation arriving late in a session.
The bill would have died if not for an unusual tactic employed by then-Sen. Manny Aragon, D-Albuquerque. Aragon, a sponsor of the bill, argued the Finance Committee should be bypassed. He lined up enough support to “blast” the bill out of the committee and bring it to a vote of the full Senate.
Proponents of a King holiday amended the bill to soften complaints about too much spending. They combined George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays into one holiday. That left a day to memorialize King without any additional expense.
Howls of complaint followed in the Senate. Bundling two legendary presidents together to make way for a slain Southern preacher displeased conservative Republicans.
But the bill suddenly had momentum. Part of the reason was a conflict in neighboring Arizona that would cost it conventions and cash.
The Arizona Legislature by one vote had rejected a state holiday for King. Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt then issued an executive order authorizing a holiday carrying King’s name.
Babbitt’s successor, Republican Gov. Evan Mecham, canceled the holiday in 1987. Mecham said Babbitt had overstepped his authority by creating it without the Legislature’s approval.
Reaction was swift and painful for Arizona. The tourist trade suffered while Mecham became a reluctant national figure. Garry Trudeau lampooned him in the Doonesbury comic strip.
All the trouble in Arizona motivated Democratic senators in New Mexico. They voted 20-8 for the bill honoring King. Foreman was one of the dissenters.
Fourteen other senators, one-third of the chamber, did not even vote on the bill. But the biggest hurdle had been cleared. Then-Gov. Garrey Carruthers, a Republican, signed the measure into law.
Important figures in New Mexico’s debate regarding King went in different directions. Carruthers had a long career in academia, culminating with his serving as chancellor of New Mexico State University. Foreman, an engineer, quit politics in 1992. Aragon served 4½ years in federal prison after being convicted of corruption as a senator.
For a moment, King’s legacy brought them together. He’d led a boycott of segregated buses, challenged discriminatory housing practices and faced down redneck sheriffs and bigoted election clerks.
All his days were filled with tension. King withstood tear gas, bricks, bombs and bullets until a sniper killed him at age 39.
Who knows what he would have thought about the fuss over his holiday in New Mexico, or a bigger one in Arizona that cost the Phoenix area the 1993 Super Bowl.
What might he have said to those adversaries? “Peace” is my best guess.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.
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