Martin Luther King Day


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Governor Evan Mecham’s first act in office was to rescind an executive order creating a Martin Luther King Junior Day in Arizona.  It was all downhill from there.The state faced boycotts and protests…and the National Football League took the Super Bowl out of Sun Devil Stadium.Finally, after five years of fights, marches, and failed referenda, Arizona became the first state in the nation with a voter-approved holiday honoring Martin Luther King Junior.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

Narrator: A national effort to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., began less than a week after the civil rights leader was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 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 honoring Dr. King in November of 1983. Arizona lawmakers, though, weren't quite ready to pass that particular holiday, so Governor Bruce Babbitt took his own action.

Warren Stewart: Governor Babbitt called me at my house on a Friday afternoon and -- to my surprise -- and said, "Reverend, what do you think about me signing the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday as an executive order in your pulpit on Sunday morning?"

Narrator: For many in the first institutional Baptist Church that day, it felt like a turning point in Arizona history.

Warren Stewart: On May 18, 1986, in this pulpit right where I'm standing, Governor Babbitt signed the executive order.

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

Narrator: But Babbitt wouldn't be governor much longer. He was preparing for a presidential run and told holiday supporters to steel themselves for a lingering fight.

Warren 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.

Narrator: 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.

Robert MacNeil: Earlier today, Jackson criticized Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona for being a "dream buster." In Phoenix, 15,000 persons agreed with Jackson and braved unusually cold weather to petition the State Legislature to make the date a state holiday in defiance of the Governor.

Matt Whitaker: I just 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 who were interested in social justice.

Narrator: In a nationally televised intervention of sorts, former Governor Babbitt tried to convince Mecham to change his mind and push the legislature to approve a King Holiday, but Mecham was unmoved.

Bruce Babbitt: I remember you standing up and saying, "I'm elected to lead; I am a moral leader.”

Evan Mecham: I am.

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

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

Narrator: Mecham's statements that included 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.

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

Narrator: Other entertainers followed suit, as did a number of other groups. By May of 1987, the state had lost 17 meetings already scheduled for Phoenix, Tucson, or Sedona. Economists projected those meetings bringing in $5 million directly and millions more indirectly. So behind the combination of idealists and a business community seeing dollar signs disappearing before their eyes, the "Recall Mecham" campaign got started.

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

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

Narrator: Signatures were gathered and momentum built to recall Governor Mecham. Former U.S. 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 for his inaugural ball on April 4, 1988, twenty 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 referenda were both defeated by voters in 1990. Some blamed the defeats on the National Football League's threats.

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

Joe Rhein: That created a real firestorm of disappointed -- you know, of upset people here saying, you know, "who in New York has the right to influence how we should vote in Arizona?"

Narrator: But the efforts to bring a King Holiday to Arizona didn't stop, and finally 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.

Matt Whitaker: It was fantastic because it was an affirmation of the potential for positive change not only in Arizona but America.

Narrator: There was a lingering feeling among some, though, that it shouldn't have had to take such a long time.

Matt Whitaker: I would like to say that it was simple moral suasion, right, that moved them. We should be proud that we did what we did, but we also have to acknowledge that it wasn't done as fast as it should've been done and in the way that it should've been done.

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

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