As we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement today, it is worth remembering that the campaign to honor Dr. King faced significant opposition from Republicans. Then-president Ronald Reagan was among the primary opponents of the bill to create a holiday honoring Dr. King, believing that it would “open the door to many other groups seeking similar holidays,” as were former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Texas Congressman and libertarian leader Ron Paul. Former Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) famously led a vigorous campaign against the holiday on the grounds that King was a “communist sympathizer.” In the 1980s debate raged in Congress, with many Republicans arguing that the nation had been “misled into believing MLK was a great man.” Even today, the Republican-dominated states of Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi observe the holiday as jointly celebrating “Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee’s birthdays.”
Indeed there are nine current members of Congress – all Republicans – who voted against the creation of MLK day as a national holiday in 1983. These include, in the Senate: Richard Shelby (AL), Chuck Grassley (IA), John McCain (AZ), and Orrin Hatch (UT). And, in the House: Jim Sensenbrenner (WI), Hal Rogers (KY), John Culberson (TX), Steve Scalise (LA), and Johnny Isakson (GA).
Many of the more prominent anti-MLK day Republicans have since recanted their opposition, now that such views would be unfashionable. Reagan and Cheney both ended grudgingly supporting the final 1983 bill after it became clear it had overwhelming support, and Senators like John McCain and Orrin Hatch have said they would reverse the vote if they could. Others remain more steadfast in their racism, such as Mr. Scalise, the new House majority whip, who famously gave a speech to a white supremacist group while serving as a state legislator in 2002.
While most Republicans are quick to disown the racism of the likes of Donald Trump, one has to wonder why the Republican Party attracts the racists that support him and why it always seems to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to civil rights issues. The question is as important as ever today as Republicans continue to oppose civil rights for LGBT individuals, stoke xenophobic hatred towards Muslims, and stand in the way of African-Americans still fighting for equality in America. As we honor Dr. King’s legacy today his work is far from over, and, as was the case both in his day and in 1983, the enemies of social progress and civil rights are most often conservatives.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.