If some people had gotten their way, today wouldn't be a holiday:
The Moment That Carried This Day, by Allison Silberberg, Commentary, Washington Post: As we honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. today, it bears remembering how the holiday came to be.
The legislation proposing creation of a federal holiday was not at all assured in the fall of 1983. The Democratic-controlled House had passed its bill in August with bipartisan support, but Democrats in the GOP-controlled Senate faced a fight despite support from some prominent Republicans. President Ronald Reagan was against this type of memorial. Many Republicans said they opposed it for economic reasons, arguing that our nation couldn't afford another federal holiday.
At the time, I was an intern for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and was following the bill carefully. ... I remember the October day ... I begged for permission to go to the galleries above the Senate floor to watch Kennedy deliver the speech.
The galleries and the Senate were nearly empty when Kennedy walked onto the floor. I saw only three members -- Kennedy, the senator who was presiding, and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who was speaking against the holiday.
After several minutes, Helms said that he thought it "ironic" that "black citizens" were the ones who most needed jobs and yet were demanding a holiday. The few of us in the gallery gasped. Helms said repeatedly that the legislation was being railroaded through the Senate without proper hearings. Having heard enough, Kennedy rose to ask Helms to yield. Helms refused. Kennedy sat down and waited... Finally, Helms said he would conclude -- and then he uttered the words that turned the tide of the whole debate.
Helms had been speaking about the negative economic effects of a federal holiday, but he announced that he also opposed the holiday because King had used "nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities" and that King supported "action-oriented Marxism." Then he yielded the floor.
Kennedy rose, his face reddening with anger. He put his prepared remarks aside and began to explain that Helms's statement was exactly why our nation needed this holiday. The words seemed to come from deep within him. Kennedy said Helms's comments took him back to an uglier time in America, a time that King courageously fought to correct, as Kennedy's own brothers had.
Helms, who had been leaving the chamber, returned. "Will the senator please yield the floor?" he shouted.
"No, I will not yield the floor," Kennedy replied.
As Kennedy spoke, other senators appeared, trying to see what the commotion was about. The doors to the press gallery flew open, and reporters rushed forward and peered over the railing with notepads in hand. It was like a scene from a movie.
I was moved as Kennedy spoke... He wanted the holiday to remind Americans that our nation must ensure equal opportunity for all and said that King had died fighting for that inalienable right.
It was his finest hour, and Helms's worst.
The next day, The Post ran a front-page story about Helms's remarks. Helms defended his statement and continued questioning King's patriotism. ... As the vote loomed later that month, some senators switched sides out of fear of being associated with Helms's views.
The legislation passed.
Right after the Senate vote, which I watched from the packed gallery, I rushed in excitement to the room that had been set aside for a reception. Not seeing anyone there, I turned around. I remember hearing a thunderous sound coming toward me. A crowd turned the corner, and there were Kennedy, Coretta Scott King, other famous civil rights leaders and so many other supporters filling the long hall. As they walked, arm in arm, they began singing "We Shall Overcome." It was a glorious moment.
President Reagan signed the bill, but the fight over the holiday continued. Some states initially refused to honor it, and it was years before the last holdouts -- New Hampshire and Arizona -- acknowledged the day. ...
This is a day for Americans to think of those who seek freedom from want and injustice... Dr. King's dream will be alive and well if each of us does what we can for the most vulnerable in our midst.
The article referenced above:
Helms Stalls King's Day In Senate, by Helen Dewar, Washington Post, October 4, 1983; Page A01: Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), charging that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused "action-oriented Marxism" and other "radical political" views, yesterday temporarily blocked Senate action on a House-passed bill to create a new national holiday in memory of the slain civil rights leader.
Helms' assault on King, which prompted a scathing denunciation from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), came as the White House was putting out word that President Reagan intends to sign the measure, even though the administration once had opposed it. ...
Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), floor manager for the legislation, acerbically attacked the contention by Helms and other critics of the bill that another federal holiday would be costly for the economy. "Since when did a dollar sign take its place atop our moral code?" Dole asked.
Although Helms' colleagues had expected his effort to derail the bill by sending it to committee for hearings, the tone of his attack--linking King to what he called "the official policy of communism"--appeared to take them by surprise.
"I will not dignify Helms' comments with a reply. They do not reflect credit on this body," an angry Kennedy said, adding that what Helms said should be "shunned by the American people, including the citizens of his own state." Later, Kennedy accused Helms of using "Red smear" tactics.
Asked before television cameras to say whether he considered King a "Marxist-Leninist," as he had suggested..., Helms at first demurred, then said, "But the old saying--if it has webbed feet, if it has feathers and it quacks, it's a you-know-what." Asked again later if he considered King a Marxist, Helms said, "I don't think there is any question about that."
When asked if his attack on King would cause him political trouble in North Carolina, where he faces a tough race for reelection next year, Helms said bluntly, "I'm not going to get any black votes, period." ...
[T]he White House indicated that Reagan probably would sign it despite earlier reservations about the cost. Helms began his attack by suggesting the bill's cost in loss of productivity could be as high as $12 billion a year, although the Congressional Budget Office has said it would be more like $18 million. ...
But it was Helms' attack on King himself that drew the most notice.
A federal holiday should be an occasion for "shared values," but King's "very name itself remains a source of tension, a deeply troubling symbol of divided society," Helms said.
Helms said King had used "nonviolence as a provocative act to disturb the peace of the state and to trigger, in many cases, overreaction by authorities."
He asserted that there were Marxists in King's movement and that King had been warned against them by the president at the time, apparently meaning President Kennedy.
Added Helms: "I think most Americans would feel that the participation of Marxists in the planning and direction of any movement taints that movement at the outset . . . . Others may argue that Dr. King's thought may have been merely Marxist in its orientation. But the trouble with that is that Marxism-Leninism, the official philosphy of communism, is an action-oriented revolutionary doctrine. And Dr. King's action-oriented Marxism, about which he was cautioned by the leaders of this country, including the president at that time, is not compatible with the concepts of this country."
Kennedy was joined by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) in disavowing Helms' charges. Specter, calling King a "Herculean figure on the American scene," credited an appearance by King in Philadelphia with being a "stabilizing influence" that prevented rioting there in the 1960s.
Said Dole: "To those who would worry about cost, I would suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination."