Today we honor the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Through the power of his words and his actions, MLK inspired people to put their lives on the line in the fight for equality between the races, a struggle that continues to this day. When we remember him, we should remember both what he achieved in his short life and what still needs to be done today. We should also remember that there are six sitting members of Congress who, in 1983, voted against giving him a federal holiday. Here they are:
John McCain (R-AZ)
In his first term as Congressman, the now-senior Senator from Arizona voted against MLK Day because he “thought that it was not necessary to have another federal holiday, that it cost too much money, that other presidents were not recognized.” Although the law was passed on the federal level in 1983, it would not be recognized by every state until 2000, with Arizona one of the most significant holdouts. In 1986, the year the law first went into effect, Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt recognized the holiday through an executive order, but his successor, Republican Evan Mecham, overturned this decision. Two ballot initiatives in the 1990 midterms to establish MLK Day in Arizona failed. It took the NFL cancelling their plans to hold the 1993 Super Bowl in Tempe that forced lawmakers to put it on the ballot again in 1992, and this time, it won. McCain recanted his vote in a 2008 speech at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis (now the Civil Rights Museum), calling it “a mistake.”
Richard Shelby (R-AL)
Shelby was a Democrat in 1983 when he voted against MLK Day (he changed parties in 1994.) Interestingly enough, when he won his Senate seat in 1986, his Republican opponent, then-Senator Jeremiah Denton, voted for it. Shelby would go on to flirt with birtherism, telling a local newspaper, “Well [Obama’s] father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven’t seen any birth certificate,” which he would later take back. His home state still celebrates MLK Day in conjunction with Robert E. Lee’s Birthday.
Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Hatch, a Senator since 1977 who recently announced his retirement, has been vocal in apologizing for his vote, calling it “one of the worst decisions I have [ever] made.” Like McCain, he didn’t see the need to spend so much money on giving MLK a holiday above “other great men in our nation’s history who did not have commemorative holidays.” (He did not specify which ones.) In 2000, Utah became the last state to honor MLK with a state holiday.
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
An aide to the Senate Judiciary Chairman told the Hill in 2015, “Senator Grassley’s vote against…MLK Day…was purely an economic decision both in the cost to the broader economy in lost productivity, and the cost to the taxpayers with the federal government closed.” In fairness, Grassley has made attempts to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, and he authorized putting MLK on a gold medal. But let’s not give him a free pass: when Donald Trump said that Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t fairly judge the case against Trump University because of his Mexican heritage, Grassley told the Des Moines Register that the then-candidate’s comments were no worse than Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” speech. He also refused to open an investigation into the events at Charlottesville last summer.
Hal Rogers (R-KY)
The Kentucky Congressman has a poor track record on civil rights, with a 92% rating from the Christian Coalition on family values, 28% from the NAACP, 7% from the ACLU, and 0% from the Human Rights Campaign. To earn this distinction, he has voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, affirmative action, and prohibiting job discrimination based on gender/orientation; while supporting a constitutional amendment to define marriage as man-woman and making the PATRIOT ACT permanent. He has not commented on his MLK Day vote.
James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)
The Wisconsin Congressman joined fellow representatives Tom Petri and Toby Roth in voting against the holiday. Although he reintroduced the Voting Rights Act last year, Sensenbrenner still objected to flying flags half-mast for Nelson Mandela, and joked about Michelle Obama’s commitment to ending childhood obesity by saying, “Look at her big butt” (which he apologized for.) Based on these two photos, it is entirely possible that he and Hal Rogers are the same person.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.