On August 2, 1983 I sat in the press gallery of the House of Representatives and watched history being made. That was the date of the historic debate on the bill designating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a federal holiday.
I was a young regional reporter then, covering the California congressional delegation in Washington for two West Coast newspapers, the San Jose Mercury News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. I had been tipped off that a conservative Republican member from the Long Beach circulation area named Daniel Lungren (he now represents a Sacramento-area district in the House, but that is another story) was going to make news.
Did he ever. And he wasn't alone. Dan Lungren was joined, and bolstered, by a memorable stand taken that day by Jack Kemp, a conservative Republican representing upstate New York.
In that session of Congress, the Black Caucus had hoped to commemorate the 15th anniversary of Martin Luther King's death by enacting a federal holiday in his name – the first time any African-American had been so honored. The Republican Party may have been founded for the purpose of ending slavery, but by the early 1980s, its members had become trapped by their own anti-federal worker rhetoric and their budget cutting creed. Most Republicans had come out against the bill.
The opposition of one GOP House member, in particular, bothered black Democrats. That Representative was Jack Kemp, who loathed racism and who conveyed these noble sentiments in public and private.
Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat and African-American, had introduced the bill for 15 years running, and was eloquent about its importance. "I never viewed it as an isolated piece of legislation to honor one man," he told his colleagues. "Rather, I have always viewed it as an indication of the commitment of the House and the nation to the dream of Dr. King. When we pass this legislation, we should signal our commitment to the realization of full employment, world peace, and freedom for all."
Slowly, the inalienable truth of this position slowly seeped into the hearts and minds of intransigent Republican members. Lungren was one of them. Initially, he voted against the holiday, but went home that night and told his wife, "You know, I think I did the wrong thing." She gave him the advice we all need to hear occasionally: "Well, if you did, you'd better do something about it."
One of the things Lungren did was talk about his tortured conscience with Jack Kemp, who, it turned out, was in the midst of a similar mental and moral journey. A native Southern Californian, Kemp had played professional football as a quarterback for a dozen years, and he had black friends outside of politics. One Kemp aide told me that Kemp heard from these old friends after he initially opposed the Martin Luther King holiday bill – and that, to the last man, they were dismayed and surprised by the blindness of their old teammate.
The upshot was a visit by Lungren and Kemp, along with Newt Gingrich, to Conyers' office. It was more than a courtesy call. These influential Republicans had switched sides, and they wanted to know how they could help Conyers pass his bill. His advice was simple: Speak in favor of it on the House floor.
And so, on that August day, Jack Kemp strode to the lectern in the well of the House and made a blunt and fiery statement. "I have changed my position on this vote," he told his colleagues and the world, "because I really think that the American Revolution will not be complete until we commemorate the civil rights revolution and guarantee those basic declaration of human rights for all Americans and remove those barriers that stand in the way of people being what they were meant to be."
Kemp, like Lungren, made it a point that day to explain that in their view King hadn't liberated black Americans, he'd liberated all Americans. Whites, because of the binding nature of their thinking, had been liberated most of all.
"I want my party to stand for that," Jack Kemp said, speaking without notes. "If we lose sight of the fact that the Republican Party was founded by Mr. Lincoln as a party of civil rights, freedom, and hope, and opportunity, and dreams, and a place where all people could be free – if we turn our backs we are not going to the be the party of human dignity we want, as Republicans, to be known for."
That speech helped turned the tide. The final vote, taken after a resounding call to arms by House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill Jr., was 338-90. The opposition had been routed, and the bill soon passed the Senate overwhelmingly with a majority of Republicans joining a solid bloc of Democrats. President Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2.
"Dr. King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, 'Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.'"
To me, November 2, 1983 was a great day to be an American. And the result was helped on its God-determined course three months earlier by a former quarterback from Buffalo, New York, by way of California, who did himself, and his nation, proud. "Mr. Lincoln" would have approved.