Fighting to Desegregate the American Calendar (1968–1983): An Expert from “Living the Dream”

Today, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we’re featuring an excerpt from Living The Dream: The Contested History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day by Daniel T. Fleming.

“In the first book-length study of its kind, Daniel Fleming has added significantly to our understanding of the King holiday and debates around it.”

Renee Romano, author of Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders

The sanitization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination began the night he died, on April 4, 1968. Earlier, King stood in the cool evening air in Memphis, freshly shaven, bantering with friends, and preparing to eat dinner at the home of Rev. Billy Kyles. At 6:01 P.M. James Earl Ray scoped King in his rifle sights and pulled the trigger. A single bullet felled him. The bullet severed King’s spinal cord. A wound extended from King’s jaw down his neck to his collarbone. Ralph Abernathy, King’s dearest friend and deputy, cradled him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, and then rode with him in the ambulance. Abernathy believed that King was aware of what had happened, even as life pulsed from his body. One hour after the shot, at 7:05 P.M., King died on an operating table at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Overnight, morticians cleaned and concealed the wounds. They reset his shattered jaw, embalmed his body, and dressed him in a new suit. Abernathy thought King “appeared unblemished” when he next saw him. The morticians presented King in an open casket, at rest: eternally composed. By morning, they had erased all signs of the violence wrought upon him, sparing America a gruesome open casket viewing like that which followed Emmett Till’s confronting murder some twelve years earlier. As hundreds visited the funeral home to pay their respects, before a plane transported the body to Atlanta, the contest over King’s legacy began.

Four days later, on April 9, 1968, the King family buried a son, a brother, a father, an uncle, a husband. This was, however, no private funeral. Many of the most powerful leaders in the nation, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, Governor Nelson Rockefeller (N.Y.), and former Vice President Richard M. Nixon—each a potential presidential nominee in 1968—joined mourners inside Ebenezer Baptist Church. Fifty members of the U.S. House of Representatives and thirty U.S. senators came, as did city mayors and religious leaders. New York Times journalist Homer Bigart reported that after the ceremony, both the “lowly and the powerful” witnessed “one of the strangest corteges ever seen in the land.” Two mules pulled a farm wagon that carried King along Atlanta’s streets to South-View Cemetery. In contrast to the “gleaming African mahogany coffin,” as Bigart described it, the dilapidated wagon symbolized King’s affinity with the poor.

King was far from universally popular, however. A 1966 Gallup poll revealed that two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of him. President Lyndon B. Johnson, once an ally, had fallen out with King over the direction of two failing wars, the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty. Johnson and former president Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed away from the funeral, as did the arch segregationist Lester Maddox, governor of King’s home state of Georgia. Of the 150,000 people who marched in or watched the funeral procession, a mere 10 percent were estimated to be white.

Despite King’s waning popularity, his assassination prompted an immediate outpouring of grief and tribute in song, speech, and poetry. Robert F. Kennedy eloquently recited Aeschylus when news of King’s murder reached him at a campaign rally in Indianapolis. Kennedy appealed for Americans to replace bloodshed with understanding, reminding his predominantly Black audience that he, too, had lost a family member to a white male assassin. Cultural figures also paid prominent tribute, and musicians led the way. On April 5, singer James Brown dedicated a concert to King that was telecast live in the hope that civil unrest in Boston would cease if people stayed home to watch. Nina Simone performed the newly composed “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” on April 7 at the Westbury Music Festival on Long Island, New York.

Despite King’s waning popularity, his assassination prompted an immediate outpouring of grief and tribute in song, speech, and poetry.

As the morticians sanitized King’s death, politicians sanitized his life. Johnson declared a national day of mourning for Palm Sunday, April 7, and four days after King’s assassination, Representative John Conyers introduced legislation to the U.S. House of Representatives to create a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. In doing so, Conyers became a memorial entrepreneur. And, in keeping with U.S. tradition, Conyers called for King’s birthday, not the more recent and emotionally charged date of the assassination, to host the holiday.

What did Conyers hope to achieve? An African American Democrat from Detroit, Conyers believed that a federal holiday in King’s name would be the greatest honor the nation could bestow. He telephoned Coretta Scott King and requested her approval (which she gave) before he presented the legislation. On the same day, Senator Edward Brooke, an African American Republican from Massachusetts, introduced a joint resolution to the Senate to designate King’s birthday a memorial day. Though he did not seek a federal holiday, Brooke proposed an “annual occasion” with ceremonies, prayers, and a presidential proclamation to honor King. He condemned the uprisings that followed King’s murder as “misguided and reckless” and instead suggested that “churches … schools and homes” were the appropriate places to pay tribute. These memorial gestures by Conyers and Brooke symbolized two divergent paths to honor King: one, an annual paid federal holiday; the other, an unpaid cultural/memorial tribute.

Conyers did not merely admire King as a man. Conyers was a memorial entrepreneur who sought to infuse America’s collective memory with the history of Black life. And King’s birthday offered the most logical anniversary to promote that goal. Commemorating his death would have signaled that the realization of King’s dream remained distant. African Americans (but not only they) exerted enormous pressure on Congress to designate King Day, and their ultimate success demonstrated a newfound political power. Affixing King’s name to the holiday ensured that it became indisputably connected to African American history. Yet to win the holiday, they had to persuade a skeptical, nearly all white, Congress to approve the memorial. To achieve a consensus, they downplayed controversial aspects of King’s legacy and emphasized national unity and reconciliation. This approval process contributed to the deradicalization of King’s legacy. Further, Congress proved receptive to King’s role as an individual, not necessarily the fact of his being part of a broader movement.

Commemorating his death would have signaled that the realization of King’s dream remained distant.

As a versatile but complex hero, King led a life open to interpretation by politicians and activists of all types. Throughout the fight for the holiday, supporters and detractors alike fiercely debated King’s legacy. His memorialization prompts an important question: Why did Congress, and by extension the nation, choose King to honor with a holiday? Congress selected King because he represented African American life and history, symbolized unity, appealed to whites, was a contemporary hero, and liberals and moderates perceived him as having transcended political partisanship. Some in Congress portrayed the holiday as an act of atonement for centuries of Black oppression and intended that it commemorate the civil rights movement more broadly.

King possessed the qualities, appealing to Congress, that Alderman argues are required for memorialization: legitimacy, resonance, and hybridity. King’s legitimacy derived from his charismatic leadership and ability to galvanize a movement that reformed the nation. Liberals and conservatives, some of whom once denounced King, accepted him as a reformer apparently above party politics. His dream for the nation still resonated powerfully as did the fact he was a contemporary of many lawmakers. And King’s hybridity meant he appealed to a diverse array of Americans—from the working class to middle class, vernacular to elite, Democrat to Republican, Black and white. As the fight for the holiday progressed, massive public demonstrations emphasized the high esteem with which the community began to reconsider King. Though opponents argued he only appealed to African Americans, holiday advocates successfully connected him to timeless values like equality, freedom, and justice. They drew favorable comparisons between the civil rights movement and epic historic events like the American Revolution and the Civil War, so that honoring him became an act of strengthening the nation’s existing traditions and values. The holiday’s hybridity developed as it recognized both King and the civil rights movement. King Day represented an opportunity to bridge the nation’s racial divide and promote nonviolence, which Coretta feared was in danger of becoming a forgotten philosophy..

Daniel T. Fleming is lecturer at the University of New South Wales.