Arizonans recall fight for state MLK holiday
Fight to honor civil rights leader would take eight years
WASHINGTON — When the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is officially dedicated here this weekend, it will be the culmination of an effort that began with a small group of men in 1984.
But while those men were starting to plan a memorial, Arizonans were still years away from agreement on whether the state should honor the slain civil rights leader.
It would be two years after memorial planning began before an Arizona governor would declare a state holiday for King. That sparked another six years of fights – in the State Capitol and at the ballot box – before the state would adopt a King holiday. Only New Hampshire took longer to do so.
In the interim, Arizona lost a Super Bowl and the state was boycotted and blasted nationally for its refusal to adopt a holiday. The state was painted as “the new Mississippi or new Alabama,” a shock to those Arizonans who were fighting for the holiday.
“The perception was that this was a racist state,” said Warren H. Stewart Sr., pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix. “It’s ironic. In Arizona, if you can afford the house payment then you can live anywhere you want.”
Stewart was a leader, with Paul Eppinger, of Arizonans for a Martin Luther King Jr. State Holiday, a grass-roots group that lobbied the Legislature to adopt the holiday.
The two men said they had their work cut out for them when they started.
“Our job was to educate that this was an American holiday,” said Stewart, who is black. “This ain’t about a black man, this is about America.”
Eppinger, now the executive director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, said, “I’m a white guy, but I joined as strongly as I could.”
Illinois recognized the nation’s first King holiday in 1973, five years after the civil rights leader was assassinated. An Arizona senator introduced a resolution in 1972 calling for a day of observance in the state, and the first bill calling for a state holiday was introduced in 1975. Those attempts, and others that regularly followed, routinely failed.
Meanwhile, other states started adopting the holiday and in 1983 Congress passed, and President Ronald Reagan signed, a bill creating a federal holiday that was first observed in 1986.
It was that year that then-Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt climbed into the pulpit in Stewart’s church on a Sunday and signed an executive order creating a paid King holiday for state workers in Arizona.
The holiday was never celebrated: The attorney general said Babbitt, a lame duck who was eyeing a run for president, did not have the authority to declare a paid holiday, only the Legislature could do that.
Incoming Gov. Evan Mecham, citing that attorney general’s opinion, rescinded the holiday shortly after taking office, just days before it would have been observed.
Stewart and Eppinger said their group met with Mecham in an unsuccessful bid to change his mind. “He told us, black people need jobs, not a holiday,” said Stewart.
“From then it was on,” he said.
Singer Stevie Wonder pulled out of a planned concert in Tucson, which Stewart points to as the start of a national boycott of the state by celebrities and businesses. But the movement got serious traction when the National Football League threatened in 1990 to move the Super Bowl that was scheduled to be played in Tempe’s Sun Devil Stadium in 1993.
Stewart said that local leaders who were not interested in his campaign before the NFL threat had a sudden change of heart.
“They returned my calls when the NFL said they wouldn’t come for the Super Bowl,” he said.
Eppinger said corporate leaders in Arizona began to realize, “You can kiss the Super Bowl goodbye, you can kiss some of the conventions and business goodbye, because no one wants to come to a state without the holiday.”
But somebody forgot to tell Arizona voters.
The Legislature in 1989 adopted a King holiday, replacing Columbus Day. That angered Italian-American groups, who petitioned the new holiday to a vote. The Legislature passed another measure in 1990, keeping both King and Columbus holidays, but it was too late. The issue went to voters, 76 percent of whom rejected the King holiday.
The NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl to Pasadena, Calif.
“Half a billion dollars including the Super Bowl would be lost because of the way they mishandled the holiday,” Stewart said.
He was ready to give up, but was convinced to try again. A supporter called him and said “we need you to come back with another coalition to bring back the holiday. We lost it, I’m sorry. Let’s move on,” Stewart said.
So he did. Stewart formed “Victory Together, One Clear Chance,” a campaign that he said was “a coalition with every walk of life,” to mount one last fight.
This time it worked. The Legislature in 1991 passed and sent to the voters a proposition making the third Monday in January a paid state holiday, the Martin Luther King Jr./Civil Rights Day. On Nov. 3, 1992, Arizona voters approved the holiday, with 62 percent of voters supporting the initiative.
It was observed for the first time in January 1993 — six years before New Hampshire recognized the holiday.
For those who cling to the racist image of the Arizona that rejected the holiday, Eppinger has an answer.
“Now we are the only state in the nation where the citizens have voted and said, ‘Yes we want and MLK Jr. Day,’” he said. “No other state has had its citizens vote.”