MLK Holiday

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Arizona was the first state with a voter-approved holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but getting there was a struggle. Join us for a look back at this chapter in Arizona’s history.

Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Today, the nation honors the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with an official holiday. Arizona was the first state with a voter approved King day but getting there was a struggle. Tonight we take a look back at that chapter in our state's history as "Horizon" presents Arizona stories.

Martin Luther King Jr.: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Voice over: A national effort began less than a week after the civil rights leader was assassinated n Memphis on April 4th, 1968. It took 15 years for that part of the dream to become a reality. When President Ronald Reagan signed the federal legislation creating a holiday to honor Dr. King. Arizona lawmakers weren't ready to pass that holiday, so Governor Bruce Babbitt took his own action.

Dr. Warren H. Stewart: Governor Babbitt called me on a Friday afternoon and said, Reverend, what do you think about me signing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday executive order in your pulpit on Sunday morning?

Voice over: For many in the First Institutional Baptist church that day, it felt like a turning point in Arizona history.

Dr. Warren H. Stewart: On May 18th, 1986, in this pulpit, Governor Babbitt signed the executive order.

Dr. Matthew Whitaker: We were elated because not only did someone affirm what we already thought important, but this was someone who outside of our cultural community, who was a leader of our state, who said, "I'm in solidarity with you."

Voice over: But Babbitt was preparing for a presidential run. And told holiday supporters to steal themselves for a lingering fight.

Dr. Warren H. Stewart: He said, now I'm signing this, but I guarantee you that there are people who do not want this to happen and you're going to have to work for it. None of us thought it was going to be the work that it turned out to be.

Evan Mecham: My predecessor in this office chose to assume authority and declare a paid state holiday to observe the birthday of Dr. King. The law clearly states that only the legislature has that authority, has the authority for such an act and that authority cannot be usurped by executive order.

Voice over: Governor Evan Mecham made rescinding the executive order one of his first acts in office unleashing a firestorm of criticism and frustration from local and national figures, including the reverend Jesse Jackson.

Anchor: Earlier, he criticized the governor for being a dream buster. In Phoenix, 15,000 people agreed with Jackson and braved unusually cold weather to petition the state legislature to make the day a state holiday in defiance of the governor.

Dr. Matthew Whitaker: I remember being shocked and confused and angry. It was the first time in my life that I had seen what I considered to be such a blatant disregard for that which was important, not only to my family as people of African descent, but others interested in social justice.

Voice over: In a nationally televised intervention of sort, former Governor Babbitt tried to convince him to change his mind and pushed the legislature to approve a King holiday. But Mecham was unmoved.

Anchor: I remember you standing up and saying I'm elected to lead, I'm a moral leader.

Evan Mecham: I am.

Anchor: And I think this is an hour of moral decision.

Evan Mecham: You've created a firestorm for political purposes and through no fault of mine ended up being in the middle and I have solved it in a responsible way and the legislature can take whatever action they want. I'm going to be busy getting jobs for blacks and other --

Voice over: Mecham's statements including referring to African Americans as pickaninnies didn't help persuade people that his opposition to the King holiday had nothing to do with racism. Across the nation many Americans now believed they knew something about Arizona other than it had hot weather. It also was a backwards place, unfriendly to non-whites.

Dr. Warren H. Stewart: The boycott was actually started by Stevie Wonder who was scheduled to appear in Tucson. When he found out that Governor Mecham had rescinded the King holiday he made a statement that he would never come.

Voice over: Other entertainers followed suit as did a number of other groups. By May of 1987, the state lost 17 meetings already scheduled for Phoenix, Tucson or Sedona. Economists projected those meetings bringing in five million dollars directly and millions more indirectly. So behind a combination of idealists and a business community seeing dollar signs disappearing before their eyes, the recall Mecham campaign got started.

Anchor: Is the Martin Luther King issue though the one that may perhaps get at least a certain segment of the populous more intensely motivated about this thing than some of the other issues?

Woman: Perhaps so, and certainly got it started. So, yes, the Martin Luther King holiday was a slap in the face for the black community and yes it is part of the reason why we're calling for a recall.

Voiceover: Signatures were gathered and momentum built to recall Governor Mecham. Former US house majority leader John Rhodes was even recruited to run against Mecham. The special election wasn't needed though once the state legislature moved to impeach him for the misuse of state funds on April 4th, 1988, 20 years to the day of Martin Luther King's assassination. But a state-approved holiday still wasn't in the offing. A pair of competing referendums were both defeated by voters in 1990. Some blamed the defeats on the national football league threats.

Anchor: The league is taking nothing for granted. Should the referendum be defeated, NFL has already prepared a statement announcing that in an unprecedented move, it will take back the Super Bowl awarded to Phoenix for 1993.

John Rhein: That created a real firestorm of upset people here saying who in New York has the right to influence how we should vote in Arizona.

Voiceover: But the efforts to bring a King holiday to Arizona didn't stop. In November of 1992, Arizona voters passed proposition 300. The Martin Luther King Jr. civil rights day would be commemorated on the third Monday in January. Arizona became the first state in the nation with a voter-approved king day.

Dr. Matthew Whitaker It was fantastic, it was affirmation for the potential for positive change, not only in Arizona, but America.

Voiceover: There was a lingering feeling among some though that it shouldn't have had to take such a long time.
Dr. Matthew Whitaker: I would like to say it was simple moral suasion that moved them. We should be proud we did what we did. We have to acknowledge it wasn't done as fast as it should have been done and in the way that it should have been done.

Voiceover: Others, even if some resentment remains, are proud that a majority of Arizonans drew the conclusion they ultimately did.

Dr. Warren H. Stewart: Martin Luther King represented causes larger than himself and it's not really just a Martin Luther King holiday. It's about civil rights and America living up to what it had in its constitution and the preamble that we never practiced until we were forced to.

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