Book: Struggle to get MLK Holiday in Arizona

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Dr. Warren Stewart Sr., senior pastor at the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, was at the forefront of the effort to get a Martin Luther King Holiday in Arizona that was first celebrated 23 years ago. Stewart will talk about a book he has written about the struggle for the MLK Holiday titled: “Victory Together for Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Story of Dr. Warren H. Stewart, Sr., Governor Evan Mecham and The Historic Battle for a Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday in Arizona.”


Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to this special Martin Luther King Day edition of "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Pastor Warren Stewart, Sr. of the first institutional baptist church in Phoenix was instrumental in getting a Martin Luther King day passed in Arizona back in the early 1990s. Pastor Stewart has written a book about the experience. It's titled Victory Together For Martin Luther King, Jr. Here now to talk about the book and the fight for an Arizona MLK day is Pastor Warren Stewart. Good to see you.

Warren Stewart: Thank you very much, it's great to be here.

Ted Simons: Happy Martin Luther King day to you.

Ted Simons: What happened on Monday, January 18th, 1993? I mean, what happened on that day?

Warren Stewart: It was a great day when Arizona, for the first time ever, officially celebrated a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. We filled the arena with 19,000 people.

Ted Simons: Amazing time. For those who weren't here, maybe weren't old enough, whatever the case may be, why didn't Arizona recognize MLK day?

Warren Stewart: The initial reason was that many persons in the state legislature which has to vote on a King holiday, has to authorize it, they believed that the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday was a black holiday and since Arizona at that time, only had 3% African-Americans, they didn't see what the big fuss was about, you know. This is for you people, not for all of us.

Ted Simons: And then governor babbitt at the time said we're going to do this, by executive order he created Martin Luther King day.

Warren Stewart: He called me on a Friday afternoon and he said I've got an idea. He said I believe I can declare a holiday by executive order and I would like to do it from the pulpit of the first institutional Baptist church.

Ted Simons: What did you tell him?

Warren Stewart: I said governor if you think you can do, you're open to come to the first institution.

Ted Simons: He did it. Let's talk about the reaction to what he did.

Warren Stewart: Yeah, yeah. He said in the pulpit now I'm doing this but you're going to have to fight for it. That was a prophetic statement. We fought and fought and fought.

Ted Simons: And no kidding because after his tenure was over, here comes governor Evan Mecham and one of the very first things if not the first thing he did was rescind the holiday. Why did he rescind this holiday?

Warren Stewart: Again, for two reasons. He felt that Dr. King was not worthy of a holiday, he was not of the stature of George Washington but he also believed that governor Babbitt did not have the legal authority to declare a state holiday. And actually governor Babbitt didn't declare an entire state holiday. It was only for the executive branch.

Ted Simons: And governor Mecham actually said, he thought Sunday would be okay, maybe a non-working day?

Warren Stewart: He proclaimed as you proclaim national chicken day, etc., he proclaimed Sunday as the holiday but that was not a bona fide holiday.

Ted Simons: My impression is you didn't take that all that seriously.

Warren Stewart: No, I didn't.

Ted Simons: A lot of people were upset about this. We have some photos and I know the marches, this was a galvanizing event. Almost more so than creating the holiday in the first place. Look at these -- I mean, there were marches in Phoenix. We had 15,000 strong.

Warren Stewart: One of the largest were closer to 25,000 strong and it was cold in January then but people supported this effort to join the rest of the nation with the holiday.

Ted Simons: And we have some other photos, as well. We have a flier and a newspaper rally about the King holiday, as well. Talk about what you did, what others did to get folks involved.

Warren Stewart: Well, we formed two coalitions, one was Arizonans for a Martin Luther King state holiday, that pushed the legislature to pass the holiday. The first version in 1989, the second version in May of 1990 but they were both overturned by referendum. And then in 1990 was that fatal vote of the people and the NFL said if Arizona does not pass this holiday, they will never have a Super Bowl and many people resented that.

Ted Simons: That was a major factor. It felt like folks were probably going to say okay until somebody put their back against the wall.

Warren Stewart: And then it was -- both versions, there were two versions on the ballot and both were defeated and then we were in a deep depression the day after and I was caught off the record by a news anchor, he said we need to hear from you, try it again. And we tried it again and formed victory together.

Ted Simons: And victory together, the name of your book, chronicling all of this. Talk about some of the support, the nationwide support. We've got some photos of everyone from John McCain to Stevie Wonder showing their support for this holiday.

Warren Stewart: Stevie Wonder actually was the first national leader, entertainer, who after governor Mecham rescinded the holiday, he was scheduled to perform in Tucson, and he canceled that performance and started the national boycott. And Scott King came here, brought the Martin Luther King federal commission here to try to get the legislature and the governor to support it. We had Rosa parks here.

Ted Simons: Indeed.

Warren Stewart: She was an icon for the civil rights movement. She came twice and promised to come back if we won the holiday and she did.

Ted Simons: And she did and you did win the holiday. Did the efforts change? After all these folks got involved, there's senator John McCain involved as well, was he senator at the time?

Warren Stewart: At that time, he was a Congress person and, believe it or not, John McCain voted against the federal version of the King holiday when Ronald Reagan was the president and he kind of had a conversion and supported us but it was -- I mean, it was a monumental task to move people to see that it wasn't just a black holiday but it is a holiday representing America.

Ted Simons: The 1992 referendum.

Warren Stewart: Yes, sir.

Ted Simons: It passed.

Warren Stewart: It passed. 3-2.

Ted Simons: Why did it pass?

Warren Stewart: It passed because people saw just as George Washington was key in the 18th century in the American revolution, Abraham Lincoln was crucial with the emancipation of blacks who were enslaved, Martin Luther King launched a nonviolent revolution to change America to live out its principles and that's why people saw him as very significant to a better America.

Ted Simons: And not only that, Arizona, the only state that did vote to create an MLK holiday, correct?

Warren Stewart: And we were afraid of that at first because again, African-Americans then were only three to 3.5% so we had to move people from 1986, polls were taken, 90% of Arizonans opposed it. By the time we won it, 90% supported it by January, 1993. So we did an educational campaign to get them to see this is an American holiday.

Ted Simons: And I think we have some photos as well of the passage of the MLK holiday. It was big news all over the country.

Warren Stewart: All over the world. People came to our church who had seen it on news, they came from Europe.

Ted Simons: And there you are again, front and center and governor Rose Mofford signing it and there you are, as well. Together you did it.

Warren Stewart: Victory together. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy and we're grateful for that.

Ted Simons: When you were writing the book, did things come back to you that you had forgotten? Were there things -- talk about the process? This is your life here.

Warren Stewart: I'm a meticulous note writer. When you earn a doctorate, you know how to keep notes and document everything. And so every day I would come home where I met with the state legislative leaders, the governor, had a press conference, met with grassroots people, I would write down notes. So I kept all these notes on yellow legal sized paper and took a sabbatical that the church gave me and wrote the history of this whole accomplishment.

Ted Simons: Did it come back to you when you were writing it?

Warren Stewart: Very much so. The good and the bad.

Ted Simons: I was going to say. What stuck out most good and bad? As far as memories?

Warren Stewart: The bad was that elected leaders would say one thing in a meeting with you and after you left they would come out and say completely the opposite. I was disappointed that elected officials would not be truthful all the time. The best thing was we formed the most inclusive and diverse coalition that I believe has ever existed in Arizona and in this day in which we live where there's so much divisiveness and bitter bipartisan politics, lessons can be learned from victory together here of how to work together.

Ted Simons: Do you think that Arizonans, either new to the state or too young to remember this kind of thing, has this all been kind of forgotten or is this the kind of history that people need to be reminded of?

Warren Stewart: That's why I wrote the book. There's many lessons to be learned from working together, keeping focus, persevering, coalescing, not giving up. There are so many lessons and in the book I outline lessons that we learned that can help millennials even today, can help the modern day people.

Ted Simons: I would imagine there were times when they said pastor give it up.

Warren Stewart: Oh, several times I wanted to throw it in because we were defeated in the legislature, at the polls several times. But that's part of the lessons learned. Don't give up! Persevere. If you believe in what you're doing and believe that the good lord is with you, keep pressing forward.

Ted Simons: Well, and it worked out to the best, congratulations on that victory. Congratulations on the book and continued success. It's good to see you.

Warren Stewart: Thank you, god bless you thank you very much.

Dr. Warren Stewart:senior pastor at the First Institutional Baptist Church

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