Twenty-one years ago a fiercely reluctant President Reagan inked the law that made Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Reagan signed the bill only after a fifteen-year tumultuous battle in Congress to get the bill passed, and only then when it was clear that the bill would pass with or without his backing.
Reagan bought North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms’ loud and oft-shouted view that King was not just a noisy racial agitator, but had strong Communist leanings. Reagan barely finished signing the bill when he was asked whether he thought there was any merit to Helm’s Communist charge against King. The Gipper couldn’t resist the sly aside, “We’ll know in about thirty-five years.” Reagan referred to the voluminous FBI surveillance tapes on King that a court had ordered sealed until 2027. The year after Reagan signed the bill, Helms trailed badly in the polls in his re-election bid. He was thought to be a surefire loser. He won handily. The reason some media and political pundits gave for Helms stunning reversal: His filibuster against the King holiday bill.
Reagan’s quip and Helms rabid opposition sent the not so subtle message that King really didn’t merit a national holiday. Legions of state legislators, local officials, and business leaders instantly took the cue. It took more than a decade sparked by ferocious political, and legal battles and intense opposition from industry groups before all fifty states finally capitulated and passed a King holiday law.
That hasn’t ended the fight. Though King’s holiday is an officially declared public holiday, many local government agencies still refuse to shut their doors that day. A study of hundreds of businesses by BNA Inc., a Washington-based business news publisher, last year, found that more than forty percent of state and local public agencies keep their doors open on King’s birthday. But opposition to a King holiday is deepest and most persistent among businesses. According to the BNA survey, fewer than three out of 10 businesses give their workers the day off. By contrast, about half of American firms give their employees a day off on Presidents Day. This is the next least celebrated day next to King’s birthday.
Smaller, non-unionized companies have the worst record of all. Barely one- quarter of them grant workers a day off. There are strong signs that the wave of enthusiasm of businesses to celebrate the King day has peaked. Their prime argument against the King holiday is still the cost. The estimate is that the holiday costs governments and the private sector $8 billion to give workers the day off. The heavy cost burden is a valid argument particularly for smaller companies with narrow profit margins, and higher labor costs than major corporations. But even if the expense of honoring the day were not a factor, many private businesses, public agencies, and millions of Americans still probably wouldn’t bother commemorating the day.