The King Holiday and Its Meaning
by Samuel Francis
This article is reprinted from the 2/98 issue of American Renaissance, P.O.
Box 527, Oakton, VA 22124; $24/yr.
On August 2, 1983, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill creating
a legal public holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although
there had been little discussion of the bill in the House itself and little
awareness among the American public that Congress was even considering such
a bill, it was immediately clear that the U.S. Senate sould take up the
legislation soon after the Labor Day recess.
"Martin Luther King Jr. gives a speech at his Southern "Christian"
Leadership Conference (SCLC) on September 26, 1962, as his comrades - Ann
Braden, Carl Braden, and James Dombrowski - Intently listen."
The House had passed the King Holiday Bill by an overwhelming vote of
338-90, with significant bipartisan support (both Reps. Jack Kemp and Newt
Gingrich voted for it), and the Reagan administration was indicating that
the president would not veto it if it came before him. In these
circumstances, most political observers seemed to think that Senate
enactment and presidential signature of the bill would take place virtually
unopposed; few anticipated that the battle over the King holiday in the next
few weeks would be one of the most bitter congressional and public
controversies of the decade.
From 1981 to 1986 I worked on the staff of North Carolina Republican Sen.
John P. East, a close associate and political ally of the senior senator
from North Carolina, Jesse Helms. While the legislation was being considered
I wrote a paper entitled "Martin Luther King, Jr.: Political Activities and
Associations." It was simply documentation of the affiliations with various
individuals and organizations of communist background that King had
maintained since the days when he first became a nationally prominent
In September, the paper was distributed to several Senate offices for the
purpose of informing them of these facts about King, facts in which the
national news media showed no interest. It was not originally my intention
that the paper be read on the floor of the Senate, but the Helms office
itself expressed an interest in using it as a speech, and it was
read in the Congressional Record on October 3, 1983. During ensuing debate
over the King holiday, I acted as a consultant to Sen. Helms and his regular staff.
Sen. Helms, like Sen. East and many other conservatives in the Senate and
the country, was strongly opposed to establishing a national holiday for
King. The country already observed no fewer than nine legal public
holidays --- New Years Day, "Presidents Day" as it is officially known or
"Washington's Birthday" as an unreconstructed American public continues to
insisting on calling it, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans
Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
With the exception of Washington's Birthday and Christmas, not a one of
these holidays celebrates a single individual. As Sen. East argued, to
establish a special holiday just for King was to "elevate him to the same
level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose
achievements approach Washington's." Whatever King's own accomplishments,
few would go so far as to claim that they equaled or exceeded those of many
other statesmen, soldiers, and creative minds of American history.
That argument alone should have provided a compelling reason to reject the
King holiday, but for some years a well-organized and powerful lobby had
pressured Congress for its enactment, and anyone who questioned the need for
the holiday was likely to be accused or "racism" or "insensitivity."
Congressional Democrats, always eager to court the black voting bloc that
has become their party's principal mainstay, were solidly in favor of it
(the major exception being Georgia Democrat Larry McDonald, who led the
opposition to the measure in the House and who died before the month was
over when a Soviet warplane shot down the civilian airliner on which he and
nearly three hundred other civilians were traveling).
Charles D. Brennan, retired Assistant Director of the FBI, stated that he
had personally been involved in the FBI surveillance of King and knew from
first-hand observation the truth about King's sexual conduct --- conduct
that Mr. Brennan characterized as "orgiastic and adulterous escapades, some
of which indicated that King could be bestial in his sexual abuse of women."
Republicans, always timid about accusations of racial insensitivity and
eager to court the black vote themselves, were almost as supportive of the
proposal as the Democrats. Few lawmakers stopped to consider the deeper
cultural and political impact a King holiday would have, and few journalists
and opinion-makers encouraged them to consider it. Instead, almost all of
them --- lawmakers and opinion-makers --- devoted their energies to
vilifying the only public leader who displayed the courage to question the
very premise of the proposal --- whether Martin Luther King was himself
worthy of the immense and unprecedented honor being placed upon him.
It soon became clear that whatever objections might be raised against the
holiday, no one in politics or the media wanted to hear about them and that
even the Republican leadership of the Senate was sympathetic to passage of
the legislation. When the Senate Majority Leader, Howard Baker, scheduled
action to consider the bill soon after Congress returned from the Labor Day
recess, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, called Sen. Baker and urged him to
postpone action in order to gain time to gather more support for the bill.
The senator readily agreed, telling the press, "She felt chances for passage
would be enhanced and improved if it were postponed. The postponement of
this is not for the purpose of delay." Nevertheless, despite the support for
the bill from the Republican leadership itself, the vote was delayed again,
mainly because of the efforts of Sen. Helms.
Sen. Helms delivered his speech on King on October 3 and later supplemented
it with a document of some 300 pages consisting mainly of declassified FBI
and other government reports about King's connections with communists and
communist-influenced groups that the speech recounted. That document,
distributed on the desks of all senators, was promptly characterized as "a
packet of filth" by New York's Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan,
who threw it to the floor of the Senate and stomped on it (he later repeated
his stomping off the Senate floor for the benefit of the evening news),
while Sen. Edward Kennedy denounced the Helms speech as "Red smear tactics"
that should be "shunned by the American people."
A few days later, columnist Edwin M. Yoder, Jr. in the Washington Post
sneered that Jesse Helms "is a stopped clock if ever American politics had
one" who could be depended on to "contaminate a serious argument with
debating points from the gutter," while he described Kings as "a prophet, a
man of good works, a thoroughly wholesome influence in American life."
Writing in the Washington Times, conservative Aram Bakshian held that Sen.
Helms was simply politically motivated: "He has nothing to lose and
everything to gain by heaping scorn on the memory of Martin Luther King and
thereby titillating the great white trash." Leftist Richard Cohen wrote of
Helms in the Post, "His sincerity is not in question. Only his decency."
Meanwhile, Sen. Helms, with legal assistance from the Conservative Caucus,
filed suit in federal court to obtain the release of FBI surveillance tapes
on King that had been sealed by court order until the year 2027. Their
argument was that senators could not fairly evaluate King's character and
beliefs anc ast an informed vote on the holiday measure until they had
gained access to this sealed material and had an opportunity to examine it.
The Reagan Justice Department opposed this action, and on October 18, U.S.
District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. refused to release the King files,
which remain selaed to this day.
Efforts to send the bill to committee also failed. Although it is a routine
practice for the Senate to refer all legislation to committee, where
hearings can consider the merits of the proposed law, this was not done in
the case of the King holiday bill. Sen. Kennedy, a former chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Committee, argued that hearings on a similiar proposal had
been held in a previous Congress and there was no need to hold new hearings.
He was correct that hearings had been held, but there had been considerable
turnover in the Senate since then and copies of those hearings were not
generally available. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that Republicans and
Democrats, liberals and many conservatives, the White House, the courts, and
the media all wanted the King holiday bill passed as soon as possible, with
as little serious discussion of King's character, beliefs, and associations
Why this was so was becoming increasingly clear to me as an observer of the
process. Our office soon began to receive phone calls and letters from all
over the country expressing strong popular opposition to the bill. Aides
from other Senate offices --- I specifically remember one from Washington
state and one from Pennsylvania --- told me their mail from constituents was
running overwhelmingly against the bill, and I recall overhearing Sen.
Robert Dole telling a colleague that he had to go back to Kansas and prove
he was still a Republican despite his support for the King holiday bill. The
political leaders of both parties were beginning to grasp that they were
sitting on top of a potential political earthquake, which they wanted to
stifle before it swallowed them all.
On October 19, then, the vote was held, 78 in favor of the holiday and 22
against (37 Republicans and 41 Democrats voted for the bill; 18 Republicans
and 4 Democrats voted against it); several substitute amendments intended to
replace the King holiday measure were defeated without significant debate.
President Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2nd. I distinctly
remember standing with Sen. Helms in the Republican cloakroom just off the
floor of the Senate during the debate, listening to one senator after
another approaching him to apologize for the insulting language they had
just used about Sen. Helms on the floor. Not a few of the senators assured
him they knew he was right about King but what else could they do but
denounce Helms and vote for the holiday? Most of them claimed political
expediency as their excuse, and I recall one Senate aide chortling that
"what old Jesse needs to do is get back to North Carolina and try to save
his own neck" from the coming disaster he had prepared for himself in
opposing the King holiday.
Indeed, it was conventional wisdom in Washington at the time that Jesse
Helms had committed political suicide by his opposition to the King holiday
and that he was certain to lose re-election the following year against a
challenge by Democratic Governor James B. Hunt. In fact, Sen. Helms was
trailing in the pools prior to the controversy over the holiday. The
Washington Post carried a story shortly after the vote on the holiday bill
with the headline, "Battle to Block King Holiday May Have Hurt Helms at
Home," and a former political reporter from North Carolina confidently
gloated in the Post on October 23 that Helms was "Destined to Lose in '84."
In the event, of course, Sen. Helms was re-elected by a healthy margin, and
the Post itself acknowledged the role of his opposition to the King holiday
as a major factor in his political revival. As Post reporter Bill Peterson
wrote in news stories after Helms' re-election on November 6, 1984, his
"standing among whites . . . shot up in polls after he led a filibuster
against a bill establishing a national holiday on the birthday of the late
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.," and on November 18, "A poll before the
filibuster showed Helms trailing Hunt by 20 percentage points. By October,
Hunt's lead was sliced in half. White voters who had been feeling doubts
about Helms began returning to the fold." If Sen. Helms' speech against the
King holiday had any enduring effect, then, it was to help re-elect him to
So, was Jesse Helms right about Martin Luther King? That King had close
connections with individuals and groups that were openly communist is clear
today, as it was clear during King's own lifetime and during the debate on
the holiday bill. Indeed, only two weeks after the Senate vote, on November
1, 1983, the New York Times published a letter written by Michael Parenti,
an associate fellow of the far-left Institute for Policy Studies in
Washington and a frequent contributor to Political Affairs, an official
organ of the Communist Party that styles itself the "Theoretical Journal of
the Communist Party USA."
The letter demanded "What if communists had links to Dr. King?" Mr. Parenti
pointed out that "The three areas in which King was most active --- civil
rights, peace and the labor struggle (the latter two toward the end of his
life) --- are also areas in which U.S. Communists have worked long and
devotedly," and he criticized "liberals" who "once again accept the
McCarthyite premise that U.S. Communists are purveyors of evil and that any
association with them taints one forever. Dr. King himself would not have
accepted such a premise." Those of Mr. Parenti's persuasion may see nothing
scandalous in associations with known communists, but the "liberals" whom he
criticized knew better than to make that argument in public.
Of course, to say that King maintained close affiliations with persons whom
he knew to be communists is not to say that King himself was ever a
communist or that the movement he led was controlled by communists; but his
continuing associations with communists, and his repeated dishonesty about
those connections, do raise serious questions about his own character, about
the nature of his own political views and goals, and about whether we as a
nation should have awarded him (and should continue to award him) the honor
the holiday confers. Moreover, the embarrassing political connections that
were known at the time seem today to be merely the tip of the ethical and
political iceberg with which King's reputation continues to collide.
While researching King's background in 1983, I deliberately chose to dwell
on his communist affiliations rather than on other issues involving his
sexual morality. I did so because at that time the facts about King's
subversive connections were well-documented, while the details of his sex
life were not. In the course of writing the paper, however, I spoke to
several former agents of the FBI who had been personally engaged in the FBI
surveillance of King and who knew from first-hand observation that the
rumors about his undisciplined sex life were substantially true.
A few years later, with the publication in 1989 of Ralph Abernathy's
autobiography, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down," those rumors were
substantiated by one of King's closest friends and political allies. It is
quite true that a person's sex life is largely his own business, but in the
case of an internationally prominent figure such as King, they become
publicly relevant, and they are especially relevant given the high moral
stature King's admirers habitually ascribe to him, the issue of his
integrity as a Christian clergyman, and the proposal to elevate him to the
status of a national moral icon.
In the course of the Senate debate on the King holiday, the East office
received a letter from a retired FBI official, Charles D. Brennan. Mr.
Brennan, who had served as Assistant Director of the FBI, stated that he had
personally been involved in the FBI surveillance of King and knew from
first-hand observation the truth about King's sexual conduct --- conduct
that Mr. Brennan characterized as "orgiastic and adulterous escapades, some
of which indicated that King could be bestial in his sexual abuse of women."
He also stated that "King frequently drank to excess and at times exhibited
extreme emotional instability as when he once threatened to jump from his
hotel room window." In a study that he prepared, Mr. Brennan described
King's "sexual activities and his excessive drinking" that FBI surveillance
discovered. It was this kind of conduct, he wrote, that led FBI Director J.
Edgar Hoover to describe King as "a tomcat with obsessive degenerate sexual
urges" and President Lyndon Johnson to call King a "hypocrite preacher." Mr.
Brennan also acknowledged:
"It was much the FBI collected. It was not the FBI's most shining hour.
There would be no point in wallowing in it again. The point is that it is
there. It is there in the form of transcripts, recordings, photos and logs.
It is there in great quantity. There are volumes of material labeled
'obscene.' Future historians just will not be able to avoid it."
It is precisely this material that is sealed under court order until the
year 2027 and to which the Senate was denied access prior to the vote on the
One instance from King's life that perhpas illuminates his character was
provided by historian David Garrow in his study of the FBI's surveillance of
King. Garrow recounts what the FBI gathered during a 48-hour surveillance of
King between February 22 and 24, 1964 in the Hyatt House Motel in Los
Angeles: "In that forty-eight hours the Bureau acquired what in retrospect
would be its most prized recordings of Dr. King. The treasured highlight was
a long and extremely funny story-telling session during which King (a)
bestowed supposedly honorific titles or appointments of an explicitly sexual
nature on some of his friends, (b) engaged in an extended dialogue of
double-entendre phrases that had sexual as well as religious connotations,
and (c) told an explicit joke about the rumored sexual practices of recently
assassinated President John F. Kennedy, with reference to both Mrs. Kennedy,
and the President' funeral."
Garrow's characterization of the episode as "extremely funny" is one way of
describing the incident; another is that during the session in Los Angeles,
King, a Christian minister, made obscene jokes with his own followers
(several of them also ministers), made sexual and sacreligious jokes, and
made obscene and insulting remarks intended to be funny about the late
President Kennedy and his sex life with Mrs. Kennedy.
It should be recalled that these jokes were made by King about a man who had
supported his controversial cause, had lost political support because of
his support for King and the civil rights movement, and had been dead for
less than three months at the time King engaged in obscene humor about him
and his wife. In February, 1964, the nation was still in a state of shock
over Kennedy's death, but King apparently found his death a suitable
occasion for dirty jokes.
More recently still, in addition to disclosures about King's bizarre sex
life and his close connections with communists, it has come to light that
King's record of deliberate deception in his own personal interests reaches
as far back as his years in college and graduate school, when he plagiarized
significant portions of his research papers and even his doctoral
dissertation, an act that would cause the immediate ruin of any academic
figure. Evidence of King's plagiarism, which was almost certainly known to
his academic sponsors at Boston University and was indisputably known to
other academics at the King Papers Project at Stanford University, was
deliberately suppressed and denied. It finally came to light in reports
published by The Wall Street Journal in 1990 and was later exhaustively
documented in articles and a monograph by Theodore Pappas of the Rockford
Yet, incredibly --- even after thorough documentation of King's affiliations
with communists, after the relevations about his personal moral flaws, and
after proof of his brazen dishonesty in plagiarizing his dissertation and
several other published writings --- incredibly there is no proposal to
rescind the holiday that honors him. Indeed, states like Arizona and New
Hampshire that did not rush to adopt their own holidays in honor of King
have themselves been vilified and threatened with systematic boycotts.
The continuing indulgence of King is in part due to simple political
cowardice --- fear of being denounced as a "racist" --- but also to the
political utility of the King holiday for those who seek to advance their
own political agenda. Almost immediately upon the enactment of the holiday
bill, the King holiday came to serve as a kind of charter for the radical
regime of "political correctness" and "multiculturalism" that now prevails
at many of the nation's major universities and in many areas of public and
This is so because the argument generally offered for the King holiday by
King's own radical collaborators and disciples is considerably different
from the argument for it offered by most Republicans and Democrats. The
latter argue that they simply want to celebrate what they take to be King's
personal courage and commitment to racial tolerance; the holiday, in their
view, is simply celebratory and commemorative, and they do not intend that
the holiday should advance any other agenda. But this is not the argument in
favor of the King holiday that we hear from partisans like Mrs. King and
those who harbor similar views. A few days after Senate passage of the
holiday measure, Mrs. King wrote in the Washington Post (10/23/83) about how
the holiday should be observed.
"The holiday," she wrote, "must be substantive as well as symbolic. It must
be more than a day of celebration . . . Let this holiday be a day of
reflection, a day of teaching nonviolent philosophy and strategy, a day of
getting involved in nonviolent action for social and economic progress."
Mrs. King noted that for years the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for
Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta "has conducted activities around his
birthday in many cities. The week-long observance has included a series of
educational programs, policy seminars or conferences, action-oriented
workshops, strategy sessions and planning meetings dealing with a wide
variety of current issues, from voter registration to full employment to
citizen action for nuclear disarmament."
A few months later, Robert Weisbrot, a fellow of the DuBois Institute at
Harvard, was writing in The New Republic (1/30/84) that "in all, the
nation's first commemoration of King's life invites not only celebration,
but also cerebration over his --- and the country's --- unfinished tasks."
Those "unfinished tasks," according to Mr. Weisbrot, included "curbing
disparities of wealth and opportunity in a society still ridden by caste
distinctions," a task toward the accomplishment of which "the reforms of the
early '60s" were "only a first step." Among those contemporary leaders
"seeking to extend Martin Luther King's legacy," Mr. Weisbrot wrote, "by far
the most influential and best known is his former aide, Jesse Jackson."
The exploitation of the King holiday for radical political purposes was even
further enhanced by Vincent Harding, "Professor of Religion and Social
Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver," writing in The
New York Times (1/18/88). Professor Harding rejected the notion that the
King holiday commemorates merely "a kind, gentle and easily managed
religious leader of a friendly crusade for racial integration." Such an
understanding would "demean and trivialize Dr. King's meaning." Professor
"The Martin Luther King of 1968 was calling for and leading civil
disobedience campaigns against the unjust war in Vietnam. Courageously
describing our nation as 'the greatest purveyor of violence in the world
today,' he was urging us away from a dependence on military solutions. He
was encouraging young men to refuse to serve in the military, challenging
them not to support America's anti-Communist crusades, which were really
destroying the hopes of poor nonwhite peoples everywhere. This Martin Luther
King was calling for a radical redistribution of wealth and political power
in American society as a way to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical
care, jobs, education and hope for all of our country's people."
To those of King's own political views, then, the true meaning of the
holiday is that it serves to legitimize the radical social and political
agenda that King himself favored and to delegitimize traditional American
social and cultural institutions --- not simply those that supported racial
segregation but also those that support a free market economy, an
anti-communist foreign policy, and a constitutional system that restrains
the power of the state rather than one that centralizes and expands power
for the reconstruction of society and the redistribution of wealth.
In this sense, the campaign to enact the legal public holiday in honor of
Martin Luther King was a small first step on the long march to revolution, a
charter by which that revolution is justified as the true and ultimate
meaning of the American identity. In this sense, and also in King's own
sense, as he defined it in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, the
Declaration of Independence becomes a "promissory note" by which the state
is authorized to pursue social and economic egalitarianism as its mission,
and all institutions and values that fail to reflect the dominance of
equality --- racial, cultural, national, economic, political and social ---
must be overcome and discarded.
By placing King --- and therefore his own radical ideology of social
transformation and reconstruction --- into the central pantheon of American
history, the King holiday provides a green light by which the revolutionary
process of transformation and reconstruction can charge full speed ahead.
Moreover, by placing King at the center of the American national pantheon,
the holiday also serves to undermine any argument against the revolutionary
political agenda that it has come to symbolize. Having promoted or accepted
the symbol of the new dogma as a defining --- perhaps the defining --- icon
of the American political order, those who oppose the revolutionary agenda
the symbol represents have little ground to resist that agenda.
It is hardly an accident, then, that in the years since the enactment of the
holiday and the elevation of King as a national icon, systematic attacks on
the Confederacy and its symbolism were initiated, movements to ban the
teaching of "Western civilization" came to fruition on major American
universities, Thomas Jefferson was denounced as a "racist" and "slaveowner,"
and George Washington's name was removed from a public school in New Orleans
on the grounds that he too owned slaves.
In the new nation and the new creed of which the King holiday serves as
symbol, all institutions, values, heroes, and symbols that violate the dogma
of equality are dethroned and must be eradicated. Those associated with the
South and the Confederacy are merely the most obvious violations of the
egalitarian dogma and thereform must be the first to go, but they will by no
means be the last.
The political affiliations of Martin Luther King that Sen. Jesse Helms so
courageously exposed are thus only pointers to the real danger that the King
holiday represents. The logical meaning of the holiday is the ultimate
destruction of the American Republic as it has been conceived and defined
throughout our history, and until the charter for revolution that it
represents is repealed, we can expect only further installations of the
destruction and dispossession it promises.
(Samuel Francis is a nationally syndicated columnist.)