A National Holiday for King

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But not without rancor

All 100 Senators were present for the vote. Vice President George Bush made one of his extremely rare appearances to preside, though there was not the remotest chance he would have to break a tie. Rather, the upper chamber was acting with all possible solemnity to confer an honor previously granted to only one American citizen, George Washington. As the honoree's widow watched proudly from the gallery, the Senate voted 78 to 22 to establish the third Monday of January, beginning in 1986, as a national holiday commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The high moment could not, however, erase the memory of a squalid scene the day before. New Right Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina had resurrected the old smear that King was a Communist sympathizer, setting off a shouting tumult in which other legislators broke Senate rules to impugn Helms' motives. Then, only hours after the Senate vote had seemingly put an end to the controversy, Ronald Reagan needlessly started it anew. At his Wednesday night news conference, the President defended Helms' "sincerity" even as he pledged to sign the holiday bill. Leading Democrats quickly demanded that Reagan disavow Helms. The notes of rancor were doubly distressing because the new holiday is intended to symbolize the commitment of all Americans to racial equality. Bills to establish King's birthday (which actually is Jan. 15) as a national holiday had been introduced in every session of Congress since the charismatic minister was assassinated in 1968, and just as regularly sidetracked. Opponents questioned whether King or anyone else should be granted an honor never conferred on Lincoln or Jefferson. But blacks have been registering to vote in numbers that hardly any politician can continue to ignore, and the holiday had become an issue of enormous symbolic significance. In August the House voted for the idea, 338 to 90.

Senate action was held up when Helms threatened a filibuster. Then he sued in federal court to open the "raw files" of an FBI investigation of King (partly conducted by means of wiretaps) that had been sealed until the year 2027. Though Helms claimed he wanted to know what the tapes might say about King's association with Communism, Helms' critics suspected that he was most interested in what the FBI had learned about King's active private life; the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who hated King, had planted many of his bugs under hotel beds. After the court denied his motion, Helms resumed the attack on the Senate floor.

Helms complained, accurately, that the bill had been rushed to the floor without committee hearings. He also grumbled about the cost, which he grandiosely put at $12 billion. The actual cost of a tenth national holiday* is difficult to calculate. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Federal Government would have to pay a mere $18 million in premium wages for employees who are called in to work. Some estimates put the price tag for state and local governments at $692 million and for private businesses at $4.3 billion; those figures assume they all close for the day, which they are not legally obligated to do.

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