Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Massachusetts Connection

Martin Luther King
image from Wikimedia Commons
This week the nation pauses to honor the extraordinary life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on what would have been his 87th birthday. The holiday honoring King was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on Nov. 2, 1983 (Public Law 98-144) and was first observed at the federal level on Jan. 20, 1986. What is lesser known is that Massachusetts was one of the first states (after Illinois and at the same time as Connecticut) to establish King’s birthday as a legal holiday over a decade earlier than the federal government by passing “An Act Establishing Martin Luther King’s Birthday as a Legal Holiday” on July 8, 1974  (Chap. 493, Acts of 1974). The holiday reminds us to focus on the legacy of Dr. King’s ideals—civil rights and human equality, the use of nonviolence to promote change, and encouraging people to answer to the call to public service.

Senator Edward Brooke
image from Wikimedia Commons
Massachusetts Republican U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (along with U.S. Representative colleague John Conyers, D-Michigan) led the federal effort to make King’s birthday a national holiday by introducing the first bill in Congress in 1979 (the 50th anniversary of King’s birth), an effort that would fall short by only 5 votes of the two-thirds needed for passage. A House bill establishing the holiday would ultimately prove successful 5 years later after Brooke had left office but his tireless commitment to the federal King holiday bill laid the considerable groundwork for its passage. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Massachusetts) got a standing ovation after his closing remarks recommending passage of the 1983 House bill and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) was the sponsor of the same bill in the Senate and gave a passionate defense of Dr. King during a contentious Senate debate (detailed in a New York Times article from Oct. 1983).

Dr. King was warmly welcomed to the Massachusetts State House on April 22, 1965 to address the Massachusetts General Court—this was nearly 2 years after giving his most famous “I Have a Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963. The inspirational words in his speech to the Massachusetts General Court can be found in the text of House Bill no. 4155 of 1965 and can be accessed HERE in the State Library’s DSpace digital repository. Reading his speech again, one finds that his words are just as powerful and relevant today in 2016 as they were in 1965.

Judy Carlstrom
Technical Services