In 1983, Congress voted overwhelmingly to approve legislation to honor the memory of the late Martin Luther King Jr. by observing a federal holiday on the third Monday of every January. But not every elected official was onboard with the effort.
Now the decades-old issue of who opposed making MLK Day a holiday has returned to the political scene, as one House Republican leader has faced scrutiny for his opposition to the day in conjunction with a larger controversy over race.
New House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, came under fire last month for having voted twice against a state version of the holiday while serving in the local legislature. (The votes were unearthed as part of a larger story about a previously unreported speech Scalise delivered at a 2002 conference sponsored by a white-supremacist group.) Because many states took decades after the federal decision to implement MLK Day, Scalise’s votes against the holiday came late: He was one of six Louisiana statehouse members to vote against the holiday in 2004 and one of three to vote against it in 1999.
But Scalise is not the only lawmaker still in office — nor the only prominent politician — to have opposed the holiday. When the House voted 338-90 in August 1983 to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day, several members who would go on to become U.S. senators also voted “no.”
Two current U.S. senators voted against the holiday during their time as representatives in the House: former GOP presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. And four other men who went on to join the Senate (though they have now left it) opposed is as well: Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Larry Craig of Idaho and Phil Gramm of Texas.
Current House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) also voted against the MLK Day measure. Interestingly, so did Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who decades later would emerge as the top Republican advocate in defense of the Voting Rights Act.
In October 1983, the Senate voted 78-22 in favor of establishing MLK Day, sending the bill to President Ronald Reagan’s desk. Current senators serving then who voted against the legislation include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Most of the other notable opponents of the holiday have since left office, such as Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska (current Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s father), former GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
So, too, have most of the day’s supporters, for that matter. Among the “yes” votes in the House were former Vice President Dick Cheney of Wyoming, former Democratic Senator and Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota (current Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was a “yes,” too). Also gone are prominent Senate “yes” voters Bob Dole of Kansas, later the Republican presidential nominee, GOP Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, former Republican Vice President Dan Quayle of Indiana and Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
Of those still in office, current Republican Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Dan Coats of Indiana voted as House members in favor of establishing the federal holiday, while long-serving Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi supported the measure in the Senate.