Monday, January 17, 2005

Mecham, MLK, and AZ

I lived in Arizona for nine years during my undergrad years, and then while my wife finished college. It was a culture shock in many ways to a kid who was raised in the suburbs of the city that works. Phoenix was surreal, both in its beautiful desert and closed "good old boy" culture. I remember being there when the debate was raised about whether Arizona should honor Dr. King's life with a holiday.

The fight was loud and public. The opponents claimed it was all about paying those lazy public servants for yet another day off. But with a governor who used the term "pickaninny" and other racial epitaphs in his public speeches, it was obvious this had little to do with state budgets. Although Gov. Mecham would eventually be impeached for his more criminal wrongdoings, the fight for the holiday was lengthy and incredible for someone from Chicago to witness.

It took years to get a paid holiday for Dr. King, embarassing Arizona nationally in the process:
1987    Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham signed executive order rescinding holiday "since authority to declare state holidays lies with the Legislature and not with the Governor". 

1988    In the final hours of the session, proposals to create a Dr. MLK, Jr. holiday were killed in the Arizona Senate.

1989    A bill to create a Dr. MLK, Jr. holiday and combine the state holidays for Washington and Lincoln into a Presidents' Day was passed by the Arizona House but was killed in the Senate.  By this time, 44 states legislated a Dr. MLK holiday.

1989    The Arizona legislature created a paid Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and eliminated Columbus Day as a paid holiday.

1990    Arizona voters rejected Proposition 301 which would have established the MLK holiday and made Columbus Day an unpaid observance.  Prop 302 was also defeated which would have retained Columbus Day and MLK Day as paid holidays.

1992    Voters of Arizona passed Proposition 300 which established a MLK/Civil Rights holiday on the third Monday of every January.

1993    January 18th, Arizona observed first statewide King holiday.
In the end, I think the people of Arizona passed Prop 300 as much out of duty to Dr. King as from embarrassment of being the last state to recognize the man with a holiday. It was a shameful period in the state's history. Of all my time there, the fight for the holiday with Gov. Mecham and the treatment by the state of the Fort McDowell Apache over their casino revenues will always stand out in my mind as reasons I left that state.

Dr. King's I have a Dream is one of the most eloquent and uplifting speeches I've ever read. Below is a quote from it. The whole speech is here. Being unable to say nothing more about Dr. King that would do the man any greater justice, I'll leave you with his words:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.