Tomorrow the Wyoming legislature will disrespect the legacy of Martin Luther King once again. The legislature considers Dr. King’s birthday just another day on the calendar. Although they close for Presidents’ Day, they’ve never done so for King’s birthday.
The truth is they never really liked the idea of setting aside a day to honor the slain civil rights leader. They avoided it for twenty-two years after King’s martyrdom. Eventually they were cajoled into becoming the 46th state to do so. After Wyoming, only New Hampshire, Montana, Idaho, and Arizona held out. Wyoming wasn’t as recalcitrant as Arizona. The NFL moved a Super Bowl from Phoenix to Pasadena because of their refusal to recognize King’s birthday. Arizona then saw the light.
President Ronald Reagan signed a law establishing Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday in 1983. It took 17 years for all 50 states to join Reagan. Wyoming’s legislators resisted steadfastly until 1990. Even then a majority of Wyoming legislators couldn’t stomach the thought of giving all the recognition to Martin Luther King. Alas, though they passed the law, they purposefully denied the iconic civil rights leader his due by giving the holiday a hybrid name.
That’s how Wyoming ended up with what is called “Martin Luther King-Equality Day.” The compromised name was necessary to get the bill through both houses of the legislature. To their credit, they weren’t as bad as Virginia legislators who originally deemed the holiday, “Martin Luther King, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson Day.”
As a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives, I was the first to introduce legislation establishing the Martin Luther King holiday. It was 1973. Former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had died a year before. He called King “the most notorious liar in the country” even as King was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Hoover’s FBI tapped King’s phone and sent anonymous letters to his wife about alleged extra-marital affairs, attempting to persuade him to commit suicide. Hoover considered King a Communist.
By 1973, King had been gone for only five years and Hoover hadn’t lain in the grave long enough for many conservatives to cleanse themselves of Hoover’s slanders.
But, it was the shear doggedness of the first black woman elected to the Wyoming legislature that eventually prevailed. The late Harriet “Liz” Byrd was the champion who finally got it done.
State Senator Byrd knew personally what King’s civil rights struggle meant. In 1949, she was a twenty-three-year-old college graduate, applying for a teaching job in Cheyenne. According to historian Todd Guenther’s 2009 “Annals of Wyoming” essay, “The State Superintendent of Public Instruction refused Byrd’s application because whites didn’t want black teachers disciplining their children, and thus, Wyoming did not hire ‘Negro’ teachers.” Mrs. Byrd couldn’t get a classroom-teaching job until 1959.
Although her bills making King’s birthday a holiday were rejected nine times, she never lost hope, believing the words of the slain civil rights leader. “If you lose hope, you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose the courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all.”
The law establishing Dr. King’s birthday as a holiday has been on the books for 27 years and for 27 years it’s been dishonored by Wyoming legislators. They choose to work that day meaning that their staff must work along with skeleton crews in each state office.
It’s time for the legislative body that made this holiday the law of the state to honor Dr. King as do most other public entities. Close shop. Join the march up Capitol Avenue in memoriam. Speak to school children and others, reminding them what this patriot did for our nation, how his non-violent leadership kept the lid on a situation that could have, without his leadership, resulted in greater mayhem than was experienced across the nation.
Take the day off and, along with others, celebrate the life and legacy of a prophet who brought hope and healing to America.