Today, the nation celebrates not just the inauguration of President Obama’s second term, but the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who helped to make Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency possible. King’s birthday was enshrined as a national holiday in 1983, fifteen years after his untimely death. But Congress was hardly unanimous in its support for giving King such recognition. The House of Representatives approved of the holiday by a vote of 338 to 90, and the Senate by 78 to 22. Of those 112 dissenters, the vast majority have died or retired by now, but eight of them still remain in Congress today. Let’s take a moment to embarrass them.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ)
While running for president in 2000, McCain explained that he voted against the holiday in 1983 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.” In a 2008 speech, McCain admitted, “I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona. We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing, and Dr. King understood this about his fellow Americans.”
Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL)
Though he voted against the holiday as a Democratic congressman (he would switch parties in 1994), Shelby won a senate seat in 1986 with 88 percent of the black vote, even though his opponent, Republican incumbent Jeremiah Denton, had voted in support of MLK Day.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT)
Hatch called his vote “one of the worst decisions I have made as a senator” in a book by Charles Grodin called If I Only Knew Then … Learning From Our Mistakes. “I convinced myself that there were valid reasons to vote against the holiday,” Hatch writes. “While he was a great leader who deserved to be revered for generations, I could think of other great men in our nation’s history who did not have commemorative holidays …. Why, I argued, should we ask taxpayers to pay $1 billion a year in lost productivity … to elevate Dr. King above any of these historical figures?” Hatch admits that he had “failed to realize … that this holiday was more than just celebrating the life of one man. Dr. King represented the courage, conviction, and dedication of millions throughout America.”
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Though he voted against honoring King with a national holiday, the Iowa Republican did sign on as a co-sponsor to a 2004 bill that directed the president to honor King’s contributions with a gold medal.
Congressman C.W. Bill Young (R-FL)
Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY)
Congressman Tom Petri (R-WI)
Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)