On August 2, 1983, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill creating a legal public holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although there had been little discussion of the bill in the House itself and little awareness among the American public that Congress was even considering such a bill, it was immediately clear that the U.S. Senate would take up the legislation soon after the Labor Day recess. The House had passed the King Holiday Bill by an overwhelming vote of 338-90, with significant bipartisan support (both Reps. Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich voted for it), and the Reagan administration was indicating that the President would not veto it if it came before him. In these circumstances, most political observers seemed to think that Senate enactment and presidential signature of the bill would take place virtually unopposed; few anticipated that the battle over the King holiday in the next few weeks would be one of the most bitter congressional and public controversies of the decade.
From 1981 to 1986 I worked on the staff of North Carolina Republican Sen. John P. East, a close associate and political ally of the senior senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms.
While the legislation was being considered I wrote a paper entitled “Martin Luther King, Jr.: Political Activities and Associations.” It was simply documentation of the affiliations with various individuals and organizations of communist background that King had maintained since the days when he first became a nationally prominent figure. In September, the paper was distributed to several Senate offices for the purpose of informing them of these facts about King, facts in which the national news media showed no interest. It was not originally my intention that the paper be read on the floor of the Senate, but the Helms office itself expressed an interest in using it as a speech, and it was read into the Congressional Record on October 3, 1983. During the ensuing debate over the King holiday, I acted as a consultant to Sen. Helms and his regular staff.
Sen. Helms, like Sen. East and many other conservatives in the Senate and the country, was strongly opposed to establishing a national holiday for King. The country already observed no fewer than nine legal public holidays—New Year’s Day, “President’s Day” as it is officially known or “Washington’s Birthday” as an unreconstructed American public continues to insist on calling it, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. With the exceptions of Washington’s Birthday and Christmas, not a one of these holidays celebrates a single individual. As Sen. East argued, to establish a special holiday just for King was to “elevate him to the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach Washington’s.” Whatever King’s own accomplishments, few would go so far as to claim that they equaled or exceeded those of many other major statesmen, soldiers, and creative minds of American history.
That argument alone should have provided a compelling reason to reject the King holiday, but for some years a well-organized and powerful lobby had pressured Congress for its enactment, and anyone who questioned the need for the holiday was likely to be accused of “racism” or “insensitivity.” Congressional Democrats, always eager to court the black voting bloc that has become their party’s principal mainstay, were solidly in favor of it (the major exception being Georgia Democrat Larry McDonald, who led the opposition to the measure in the House and who died before the month was over when a Soviet warplane shot down the civilian airliner on which he and nearly three hundred other civilians were traveling). Republicans, always timid about accusations of racial insensitivity and eager to court the black vote themselves, were almost as supportive of the proposal as the Democrats. Few lawmakers stopped to consider the deeper cultural and political impact a King holiday would have, and few journalists and opinion-makers encouraged them to consider it. Instead, almost all of them—lawmakers and opinion-makers—devoted their energies to vilifying the only public leader who displayed the courage to question the very premise of the proposal—whether Martin Luther King was himself worthy of the immense and unprecedented honor being placed upon him.
It soon became clear that whatever objections might be raised against the holiday, no one in politics or the media wanted to hear about them and that even the Republican leadership of the Senate was sympathetic to passage of the legislation. When the Senate Majority Leader, Howard Baker, scheduled action to consider the bill soon after Congress returned from the Labor Day recess, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, called Sen. Baker and urged him to postpone action in order to gain time to gather more support for the bill. The senator readily agreed, telling the press, “She felt chances for passage would be enhanced and improved if it were postponed. The postponement of this is not for the purpose of delay.” Nevertheless, despite the support for the bill from the Republican leadership itself, the vote was delayed again, mainly because of the efforts of Sen. Helms.
Sen. Helms delivered his speech on King on October 3 and later supplemented it with a document of some 300 pages consisting mainly of declassified FBI and other government reports about King’s connections with communists and communist-influenced groups that the speech recounted. That document, distributed on the desks of all senators, was promptly characterized as “a packet of filth” by New York’s Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who threw it to the floor of the Senate and stomped on it (he later repeated his stomping off the Senate floor for the benefit of the evening news), while Sen. Edward Kennedy denounced the Helms speech as “Red smear tactics” that should be “shunned by the American people.” A few days later, columnist Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. in the Washington Post sneered that Jesse Helms “is a stopped clock if ever American politics had one” who could be depended on to “contaminate a serious argument with debating points from the gutter,” while he described King as “a prophet, a man of good works, a thoroughly wholesome influence in American life.” Writing in the Washington Times, conservative Aram Bakshian held that Sen. Helms was simply politically motivated: “He has nothing to lose and everything to gain by heaping scorn on the memory of Martin Luther King and thereby titillating the great white trash.” Leftist Richard Cohen wrote of Helms in the Post, “His sincerity is not in question. Only his decency.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Helms, with legal assistance from the Conservative Caucus, filed suit in federal court to obtain the release of FBI surveillance tapes on King that had been sealed by court order until the year 2027. Their argument was that senators could not fairly evaluate King’s character and beliefs and cast an informed vote on the holiday measure until they had gained access to this sealed material and had an opportunity to examine it. The Reagan Justice Department opposed this action, and on October 18, U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. refused to release the King files, which remain sealed to this day.
Efforts to send the bill to committee also failed. Although it is a routine practice for the Senate to refer all legislation to committee, where hearings can consider the merits of the proposed law, this was not done in the case of the King holiday bill. Sen. Kennedy, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that hearings on a similar proposal had been held in a previous Congress and there was no need to hold new hearings. He was correct that hearings had been held, but there had been considerable turnover in the Senate since then and copies of those hearings were not generally available. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that Republicans and Democrats, liberals and many conservatives, the White House, the courts, and the media all wanted the King holiday bill passed as soon as possible, with as little serious discussion of King’s character, beliefs, and associations as possible.
Why this was so was becoming increasingly clear to me as an observer of the process. Our office soon began to receive phone calls and letters from all over the country expressing strong popular opposition to the bill. Aides from other Senate offices—I specifically remember one from Washington state and one from Pennsylvania—told me their mail from constituents was running overwhelmingly against the bill, and I recall overhearing Sen. Robert Dole telling a colleague that he had to go back to Kansas and prove he was still a Republican despite his support for the King holiday bill. The political leaders of both parties were beginning to grasp that they were sitting on top of a potential political earthquake, which they wanted to stifle before it swallowed them all.
On October 19, then, the vote was held, 78 in favor of the holiday and 22 against (37 Republicans and 41 Democrats voted for the bill; 18 Republicans and 4 Democrats voted against it); several substitute amendments intended to replace the King holiday measure were defeated without significant debate. President Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2nd. I distinctly remember standing with Sen. Helms in the Republican cloakroom just off the floor of the Senate during the debate, listening to one senator after another approaching him to apologize for the insulting language they had just used about Sen. Helms on the floor. Not a few of the senators assured him they knew he was right about King but what else could they do but denounce Helms and vote for the holiday? Most of them claimed political expediency as their excuse, and I recall one Senate aide chortling that “what old Jesse needs to do is get back to North Carolina and try to save his own neck” from the coming disaster he had prepared for himself in opposing the King holiday.
Indeed, it was conventional wisdom in Washington at that time that Jesse Helms had committed political suicide by his opposition to the King holiday and that he was certain to lose re-election the following year against a challenge by Democratic Governor James B. Hunt. In fact, Sen. Helms was trailing in the polls prior to the controversy over the holiday. The Washington Post carried a story shortly after the vote on the holiday bill with the headline, “Battle to Block King Holiday May Have Hurt Helms at Home,” and a former political reporter from North Carolina confidently gloated in the Post on October 23 that Helms was “Destined to Lose in ’84.”
In the event, of course, Sen. Helms was re-elected by a healthy margin, and the Post itself acknowledged the role of his opposition to the King Holiday as a major factor in his political revival. As Post reporter Bill Peterson wrote in news stories after Helms’ re-election on November 6, 1984, his “standing among whites . . . shot up in polls after he led a filibuster [strong opposition] against a bill establishing a national holiday on the birthday of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” and on November 18, “A poll before the filibuster showed Helms trailing Hunt by 20 percentage points. By December, Hunt’s lead was sliced in half. White voters who had been feeling doubts about Helms began returning to the fold.” If Sen. Helms’ speech against the King holiday had any enduring effect, then, it was to help re-elect him to the Senate.
So, was Jesse Helms right about Martin Luther King? That King had close connections with individuals and groups that were openly communist is clear today, as it was clear during King’s own lifetime and during the debate on the holiday bill. Indeed, only two weeks after the Senate vote, on November 1, 1983, the New York Times published a letter written by Michael Parenti, an associate fellow of the far-left Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and a frequent contributor to Political Affairs, an official organ of the Communist Party that styles itself the “Theoretical Journal of the Communist Party, U.S.A.” The letter demanded “What if communists had links to Dr. King?” Mr. Parenti pointed out that “The three areas in which King was most active—civil rights, peace and the labor struggle (the latter two toward the end of his life)—are also areas in which U.S. Communists have worked long and devotedly,” and he criticized “liberals” who “once again accept the McCarthyite premise that U.S. Communists are purveyors of evil and that any association with them taints one forever. Dr. King himself would not have accepted such a premise.” Those of Mr. Parenti’s persuasion may see nothing scandalous in associations with known communists, but the “liberals” whom he criticized knew better than to make that argument in public.
Of course, to say that King maintained close affiliations with persons whom he knew to be communists is not to say that King himself was ever a communist or that the movement he led was controlled by communists; but his continuing associations with communists, and his repeated dishonesty about those connections, do raise serious questions about his own character, about the nature of his own political views and goals, and about whether we as a nation should have awarded him (and should continue to award him) the honor the holiday confers. Moreover, the embarrassing political connections that were known at the time seem today to be merely the tip of the ethical and political iceberg with which King’s reputation continues to collide.
While researching King’s background in 1983, I deliberately chose to dwell on his communist affiliations rather than on other issues involving his sexual morality. I did so because at that time the facts about King’s subversive connections were well-documented, while the details of his sex life were not. In the course of writing the paper, however, I spoke to several former agents of the FBI who had been personally engaged in the FBI surveillance of King and who knew from first-hand observation that the rumors about his undisciplined sex life were substantially true. A few years later, with the publication in 1989 of Ralph Abernathy’s autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, those rumors were substantiated by one of King’s closest friends and political allies. It is quite true that a person’s sex life is largely his own business, but in the case of an internationally prominent figure such as King, they become publicly relevant, and they are especially relevant given the high moral stature King’s admirers habitually ascribe to him, the issue of his integrity as a Christian clergyman, and the proposal to elevate him to the status of a national moral icon.
In the course of the Senate debate on the King holiday, the East office received a letter from a retired FBI official, Charles D. Brennan. Mr. Brennan, who had served as Assistant Director of the FBI, stated that he had personally been involved in the FBI surveillance of King and knew from first-hand observation the truth about King’s sexual conduct—conduct that Mr. Brennan characterized as “orgiastic and adulterous escapades, some of which indicated that King could be bestial in his sexual abuse of women.” He also stated that “King frequently drank to excess and at times exhibited extreme emotional instability as when he once threatened to jump from his hotel room window.” In a study that he prepared, Mr. Brennan described King’s “sexual activities and his excessive drinking” that FBI surveillance discovered. It was this kind of conduct, he wrote, that led FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to describe King as “a tom cat with obsessive degenerate sexual urges” and President Lyndon Johnson to call King a “hypocrite preacher.” Mr. Brennan also acknowledged:
It was muck the FBI collected. It was not the FBI’s most shining hour. There would be no point in wallowing in it again. The point is that the muck is there. It is there in the form of transcripts, recordings, photos and logs. It is there in great quantity. There are volumes of material labeled “obscene.’ Future historians just will not be able to avoid it.
It is precisely this material that is sealed under court order until the year 2027 and to which the Senate was denied access prior to the vote on the King holiday.
One instance from King’s life that perhaps illuminates his character was provided by historian David Garrow in his study of the FBI’s surveillance of King. Garrow recounts what the FBI gathered during a 48-hour surveillance of King between February 22 and 24, 1964 in the Hyatt House Motel in Los Angeles.
In that forty-eight hours the Bureau acquired what in retrospect would be its most prized recordings of Dr. King. The treasured highlight was a long and extremely funny storytelling session during which King (a) bestowed supposedly honorific titles or appointments of an explicitly sexual nature on some of his friends, (b) engaged in an extended dialogue of double-entendre phrases that had sexual as well as religious connotations, and (c) told an explicit joke about the rumored sexual practices of recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy, with reference to both Mrs. Kennedy, and the President’s funeral.
Garrow’s characterization of the episode as “extremely funny” is one way of describing the incident; another is that during the session in Los Angeles, King, a Christian minister, made obscene jokes with his own followers (several of them also ministers), made sexual and sacrilegious jokes, and made obscene and insulting remarks intended to be funny about the late President Kennedy and his sex life with Mrs. Kennedy. It should be recalled that these jokes were made by King about a man who had supported his controversial cause, had lost political support because of his support for King and the civil rights movement, and had been dead for less than three months at the time King engaged in obscene humor about him and his wife. In February 1964, the nation was still in a state of shock over Kennedy’s death, but King apparently found his death a suitable occasion for dirty jokes.
More recently still, in addition to disclosures about King’s bizarre sex life and his close connections with communists, it has come to light that King’s record of deliberate deception in his own personal interests reaches as far back as his years in college and graduate school, when he plagiarized significant portions of his research papers and even his doctoral dissertation, an act that would cause the immediate professional ruin of any academic figure. Evidence of King’s plagiarism, which was almost certainly known to his academic sponsors at Boston University and was indisputably known to other academics at the King Papers Project at Stanford University, was deliberately suppressed and denied. It finally came to light in reports published by the Wall Street Journal in 1990 and was later exhaustively documented in articles and a monograph by Theodore Pappas of the Rockford Institute.
Yet, incredibly—even after thorough documentation of King’s affiliations with communists, after the revelations about his personal moral flaws, and after proof of his brazen dishonesty in plagiarizing his dissertation and several other published writings—incredibly there is no proposal to rescind the holiday that honors him. Indeed, states like Arizona and New Hampshire that did not rush to adopt their own holidays in honor of King have themselves been vilified and threatened with systematic boycotts. The continuing indulgence of King is in part due to simple political cowardice—fear of being denounced as a “racist”—but also to the political utility of the King holiday for those who seek to advance their own political agenda. Almost immediately upon the enactment of the holiday bill, the King holiday came to serve as a kind of charter for the radical regime of “political correctness” and “multiculturalism” that now prevails at many of the nation’s major universities and in many areas of public and private life.
This is so because the argument generally offered for the King holiday by King’s own radical collaborators and disciples is considerably different from the argument for it offered by most Republicans and Democrats. The latter argue that they simply want to celebrate what they take to be King’s personal courage and commitment to racial tolerance; the holiday, in their view, is simply celebratory and commemorative, and they do not intend that the holiday should advance any other agenda. But this is not the argument in favor of the King holiday that we hear from partisans like Mrs. King and those who harbor similar views. A few days after Senate passage of the holiday measure, Mrs. King wrote in the Washington Post (October 23, 1983) about how the holiday should be observed.
“The holiday must be substantive as well as symbolic. It must be more than a day of celebration. . . . Let this holiday be a day of reflection, a day of teaching nonviolent philosophy and strategy, a day of getting involved in nonviolent action for social and economic progress.” She noted that for years the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta “has conducted activities around his birthday in many cities. The week-long observance has included a series of educational programs, policy seminars or conferences, action-oriented workshops, strategy sessions and planning meetings dealing with a wide variety of current issues, from voter registration to full employment to citizen action for nuclear disarmament.”
A few months later, Robert Weisbrot, a fellow of the DuBois Institute at Harvard, was writing in The New Republic (January 30, 1984) that “in all, the nation’s first commemoration of King’s life invites not only celebration, but also cerebration over his—and the country’s—unfinished tasks.” Those “unfinished tasks,” according to Mr. Weisbrot, included “curbing disparities of wealth and opportunity in a society still ridden by caste distinctions,” a task toward the accomplishment of which “the reforms of the early ’60s” were “only a first step.” Among those contemporary leaders “seeking to extend Martin Luther King’s legacy,” Mr. Weisbrot wrote, “by far the most influential and best known is his former aide, Jesse Jackson.”
The exploitation of the King holiday for radical political purposes was even further enhanced by Vincent Harding, “Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver,” writing in the New York Times (January 18, 1988). Professor Harding rejected the notion that the King holiday commemorates merely “a kind, gentle and easily managed religious leader of a friendly crusade for racial integration.” Such an understanding would “demean and trivialize Dr. King’s meaning.” Professor Harding wrote:
The Martin Luther King of 1968 was calling for and leading civil disobedience campaigns against the unjust war in Vietnam. Courageously describing our nation as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he was urging us away from a dependence on military solutions. He was encouraging young men to refuse to serve in the military, challenging them not to support America’s anti-Communist crusades, which were really destroying the hopes of poor nonwhite peoples everywhere.
This Martin Luther King was calling for a radical redistribution of wealth and political power in American society as a way to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, jobs, education and hope for all of our country’s people.
To those of King’s own political views, then, the true meaning of the holiday is that it serves to legitimize the radical social and political agenda that King himself favored and to delegitimize traditional American social and cultural institutions—not simply those that supported racial segregation but also those that support a free market economy, an anti-communist foreign policy, and a constitutional system that restrains the power of the state rather than one that centralizes and expands power for the reconstruction of society and the redistribution of wealth. In this sense, the campaign to enact the legal public holiday in honor of Martin Luther King was a small first step on the long march to revolution, a charter by which that revolution is justified as the true and ultimate meaning of the American identity. In this sense, and also in King’s own sense, as he defined it in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the Declaration of Independence becomes a “promissory note” by which the state is authorized to pursue social and economic egalitarianism as its mission, and all institutions and values that fail to reflect the dominance of equality—racial, cultural, national, economic, political, and social—must be overcome and discarded.
By placing King—and therefore his own radical ideology of social transformation and reconstruction—into the central pantheon of American history, the King holiday provides a green light by which the revolutionary process of transformation and reconstruction can charge full speed ahead. Moreover, by placing King at the center of the American national pantheon, the holiday also serves to undermine any argument against the revolutionary political agenda that it has come to symbolize. Having promoted or accepted the symbol of the new dogma as a defining—perhaps the defining—icon of the American political order, those who oppose the revolutionary agenda the symbol represents have little ground to resist that agenda.
It is hardly an accident, then, that in the years since the enactment of the holiday and the elevation of King as a national icon, systematic attacks on the Confederacy and its symbolism were initiated, movements to ban the teaching of “Western civilization” came to fruition on major American universities, Thomas Jefferson was denounced as a “racist” and “slaveowner,” and George Washington’s name was removed from a public school in New Orleans on the grounds that he too owned slaves. In the new nation and the new creed of which the King holiday serves as symbol, all institutions, values, heroes, and symbols that violate the dogma of equality are dethroned and must be eradicated. Those associated with the South and the Confederacy are merely the most obvious violations of the egalitarian dogma and therefore must be the first to go, but they will by no means be the last.
The political affiliations of Martin Luther King that Sen. Jesse Helms so courageously exposed are thus only pointers to the real danger that the King holiday represents. The logical meaning of the holiday is the ultimate destruction of the American Republic as it has been conceived and defined throughout our history, and until the charter for revolution that it represents is repealed, we can expect only further installations of the destruction and dispossession it promises.