Representative Katie B. Hall’s Fight for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

On September 7, 1982, U.S. Representative Adam Benjamin (D-Indiana), a Gary native, was found dead of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C. apartment. Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first African American mayor in the State of Indiana, was tasked with selecting a candidate to run in a special election to complete the last few months of Benjamin’s term. After some intra-party debate, Mayor Hatcher chose Indiana State Senator Katie Hall to serve out the remainder of Benjamin’s term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In November, Hall was elected to Indiana’s first congressional district seat, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. When Hall arrived in Washington, D.C., she served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Census and Population, which was responsible for holidays. Her leadership in this subcommittee would successfully build on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Over the years, many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday. Musician Stevie Wonder was one of the most active in support of Conyers’s efforts. He led rallies on the Washington Mall and used his concerts to generate public support. In 1980, Wonder released a song titled “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. The following year, Wonder funded a Washington, D.C. lobbying organization, which, together with The King Center, lobbied for the holiday’s establishment. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, ran The King Center and was also heavily involved in pushing for the holiday, testifying multiple times before the Subcommittee on Census and Population. In 1982, Mrs. King and Wonder delivered a petition to the Speaker of the House bearing more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. For Dr. King’s birthday in 1983, Mrs. King urged a boycott, asking Americans to not spend any money on January 15.

Opponents objected to the proposed holiday for various reasons. North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition, citing a high cost to the federal government. He claimed it would cost four to twelve billion dollars; however, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost to be eighteen million dollars. Furthermore, a King holiday would bring the number of federal holidays to ten, and detractors thought that to be too many. President Ronald Reagan’s initial opposition to the holiday also centered on concern over the cost; later, his position was that holidays in honor of an individual ought to be reserved for “the Washingtons and Lincolns.”

Earlier in October, Senator Helms had filibustered the holiday bill, but, on October 18, the Senate once again took the bill up for consideration. A distinguished reporter for Time, Neil MacNeil described Helms’s unpopular antics that day. Helms had prepared an inch-thick packet for each senator condemning Dr. King as a “near-communist.” It included:

‘a sampling of the 65,000 documents on [K]ing recently released by the FBI, just about all purporting the FBI’s dark suspicions of commie conspiracy by this ‘scoundrel,’ as one of the FBI’s own referred to King.’

Helms’s claims infuriated Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) because they relied on invoking the memory of Senator Kennedy’s deceased brothers—former President John Kennedy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy—against King. Kennedy was “appalled at [Helms’] attempt to misappropriate the memory” of his brothers and “misuse it as part of this smear campaign.” Senator Bill Bradley (D- New Jersey) joined Kennedy’s rebuttal by calling out Helms’s racism on the floor of the Senate and contending that Helms and others who opposed the King holiday bill “are playing up to Old Jim Crow and all of us know it.” Helms’s dramatic performance in the Senate against the holiday bill had the opposite effect from what he had intended. In fact, Southern senators together ended up voting for the bill in a higher percentage than the Senate overall.

The next day, at an October 19 press conference, Reagan further explained his reluctance to support the bill. Asked if he agreed with Senator Helms’s accusations that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer, Reagan responded, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” His comment referred to a judge’s 1977 order to keep wiretap records of Dr. King sealed. Wiretaps of Dr. King had first been approved twenty years prior by Robert Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General. U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled that the records would remain sealed, not until 2018 as Reagan mistakenly claimed, but until 2027 for a total of fifty years. However, President Reagan acknowledged in a private letter to former New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson in early October that he retained reservations about King’s alleged Communist ties, and wrote that regarding King, “the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality.”

[Munster] Times, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.
After fifteen years of struggling to commemorate King with a federal holiday, why did the effort finally succeed in 1983? It was the culmination of several factors that together resulted in sufficient pressure on the Washington establishment. Wonder’s wildly successful “Happy Birthday” pulled a lot of weight to raise the public profile of the holiday demand. Mrs. King’s perennial work advocating for the holiday kept the issue in the public eye.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. According to House.gov, “This hand bill, noting the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, sought to rally public support for the creation of the holiday.”

Support was gaining ground around the country; by 1983 eighteen states had enacted some form of holiday in honor of Dr. King. Politicians could see the tide of public support turning in favor of the holiday, and their positions on the holiday became something of a litmus test for a politician’s support of civil rights.

After Helms’s acrimonious presentation in late October, Mrs. King gave an interview, published in the Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk, saying that it was obvious since Reagan’s election that:

‘he has systematically ignored the concerns of black people . . .  These conservatives try to dress up what they’re doing [by attempting to block the King holiday bill] . . . They are against equal rights for black people. The motivation behind this is certainly strongly racial.’

Town Talk noted that “Mrs. King said she suspects Helms’s actions prompted a number of opposed senators to vote for the bill for fear of being allied with him.” Some editorials and letters-to-the-editor alleged that Reagan ultimately supported and signed the King holiday bill to secure African American votes in his 1984 reelection campaign. In August 1983, Mrs. King had helped organize a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Americans attended; all speakers called on Reagan to sign the MLKJ Day bill.

Indianapolis Star, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hall was busy building support among her colleagues for the holiday; she spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, Hall led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, “among those who testified in favor of the holiday were House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), singer Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King.” Additionally, a change in the bill potentially helped its chances by addressing a key concern of its opponents—the cost of opening government offices twice in one week. At some point between when Conyers introduced the bill in January 1981 and when Hall introduced the bill in the summer of 1983, the bill text was changed to propose that the holiday be celebrated every third Monday in January, rather than on King’s birth date of January 15.

After the House passed the bill on August 2, Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News with an insight about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

For Hall, the King holiday bill was about affirming America’s commitment to King’s mission of civil rights. It would be another two and a half months of political debate before the Senate passed the bill. 

The new holiday was slated to be officially celebrated for the first time in 1986. However, Hall and other invested parties wanted to ensure that the country’s first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be suitably celebrated. To that end, Hall introduced legislation in 1984 to establish a commission that would “work to encourage appropriate ceremonies and activities.” The legislation passed, but Hall lost her reelection campaign that year and was unable to fully participate on the committee. Regardless, in part because of Hall’s initiative, that first observance in 1986 was successful.

Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, 1984, courtesy of Medium.com.

In Hall’s district, Gary held a celebration called “The Dream that Lives” at the Genesis Convention Center. Some state capitals, including Indianapolis, held commemorative marches and rallies. Officials unveiled a new statue of Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama, where the leader was arrested in 1963 for marching in protest against the treatment of African Americans. In Washington, D.C., Wonder led a reception at the Kennedy Center with other musicians. Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke to congregants in Atlanta where Dr. King was minister, and then led a vigil at Dr. King’s grave. Mrs. King led a reception at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, also in Atlanta.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Born in Mississippi in 1938, Hall was barred from voting under Jim Crow laws. She moved her family to Gary, Indiana in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Her first vote ever cast was for John F. Kennedy during the presidential race that year. Hall was trained as a school teacher at Indiana University and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Mayor Hatcher and ran a successful campaign herself when in 1974 she won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Two years later, she ran for Indiana Senate and won. Hall and Julia Carson, elected at the same time, were the first Black women elected to the state senate. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall was still serving as Indiana state senator in 1982 when Representative Benjamin passed away and Mayor Hatcher nominated her to complete Benjamin’s term. She made history in November 1982, when in the same election she won the campaign to complete Benjamin’s term, as well as being elected to her own two year term, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. However, Hall lost her bid for reelection during the 1984 primaries to Peter Visclosky, a former aide of Rep. Benjamin who still holds the seat today. Hall ran for Congress again in 1986, this time with the endorsement of Mrs. King. Although she failed to regain the congressional seat, Hall remained active in politics. In 1987, Hall was elected Gary city clerk, a position she held until 2003 when she resigned amid scandal after an indictment on mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering charges. In June 1989, Dr. King’s son Martin King III wrote to Hall supporting her consideration of running again for Congress.

Hall passed away in Gary in 2012. The establishment of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday law was Hall’s crowning achievement. Her success built upon a fifteen-year-long struggle to establish a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. The Indiana General Assembly passed a state law in mid-1989 establishing the Dr. King holiday for state workers, but it was not until 2000 that all fifty states instituted a holiday in memory of Dr. King for state employees.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has endured despite the struggle to create it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill sponsored by Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pennsylvania) and Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) that established Martin Luther King Day as a day of service, encouraging wide participation in volunteer activities. Inspired by King’s words that “everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” the change was envisioned as a way to honor King’s legacy with service to others. Today, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated across the country and politicians’ 1983 votes on it continue to serve as a civil rights litmus test.

Mark your calendars for the April 2019 dedication ceremony of a state historical marker in Gary commemorating Representative Hall and the origins of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Click here for a bibliography of sources used in this post and the forthcoming historical marker.

“Tired of Going to Funerals:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary

Delegates, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, marching into the National Black Political Convention, courtesy of Gene Pesek/Chicago Sun-Times, accessed wbez.org.

They agreed that black prisoners should receive fair trials, that black Americans should not die years earlier than white counterparts, that black workers should be afforded a living wage, and that black candidates should be given opportunities to craft legislation that affected their communities. They shared a collective outrage. In 1972, organizers asked them – Americans of color affiliated with Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, Nationalists, and the Black Panthers- if they could overcome differing ideologies to channel this outrage into political action at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) held in Gary, Indiana. Black poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) advocated for the gathering to practice “unity without conformity.”

According to an essay in Major Problems in African American History, the Gary convention was the culmination of a series of uprisings in protest of discrimination, which historians refer to collectively as the Black Revolt. Black Americans were emboldened by tragic events, such as the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as well as legislative progress, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In an interview, North Carolina convention delegate Ben Chavis recalled:

I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize [Rev. Martin Luther] King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement. And so four years later, March of ’72, for us to be gathering up our wherewithal to go to Gary, Indiana–hey, that was a good shot in the arm for the Movement.

Historian Stephen Grant Meyer identified 1968, when King was assassinated, as the year in which the modern civil rights movement began to diverge. No longer was integration the primary means to make political and economic gains.  This fracture gave rise to a Nationalist faction, which sought to promote black identity and improve living conditions through a separate black nation. The polarization was reminiscent of the late-19th and early-20th century debates between reformer Booker T. Washington and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who both worked to ease the economic and social plight of African Americans. Washington believed this was best achieved by earning the respect of white citizens through hard work and self-help. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed white oppression should be cast off by protests and political activism, in large part through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization he co-founded.

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. According to the NWI Times, he declared “all black people, involved in any way with survival programs for the black community, [to be] revolutionaries at the National Black Political Convention,” AP Photo, courtesy of the NWI Times.
NBPC organizers, who had begun planning the conference in 1970, struggled to find a city willing to accommodate an influx of politically-engaged black Americans. Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, an advocate of civil rights and minorities and one of the first African American mayors of a major U.S. city, volunteered his predominantly black city. Not since the 1930s, with the first meeting of the National Negros Congress in Chicago, had such a massive and diverse gathering of people of color convened to advance their rights. Approximately 3,000 official delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the United States met at Gary’s West Side High School from March 10 to March 12. The attendees included a prolific group of black leaders, such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, U.S. presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, Amiri Baraka, Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Panthther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz. Organizers sought to create a cohesive political strategy for black Americans by the convention’s end.

Television crews waiting for convention to start, courtesy of the NWI Times.

A bomb threat was called into convention headquarters at the Holiday Inn and a local gang reportedly deposited guns in school lockers. These threats to disrupt the convention necessitated additional security. Uniformed and plainclothes policemen reinforced the northwestern Indiana city. Armed civil defense personnel supplemented the police presence and boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms.

The high school, decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, thrummed with activity. As vendors sold books, banners, and souvenirs, a band prompted snapping and feet-tapping with “gutsy,” drum-driven music. The Munster Times reported “Two or three white reporters, their faces split with grins, were lost somewhere with the music. A policeman absentmindedly slapped the butt of his pistol to the beat.” Delegates ranging from “pinstripe-suited conservatives to youngsters in colorful flowing robe-type shirts [dashikis] and mod fashions to the black-uniformed para-military” milled about the gym waiting for the delayed convention to finally start. Organizers scrambled to respond to complaints that the elevated platform for journalists blocked the stage.

Welcome poster, courtesy of the NWI Times.

Entertainers like James Brown and Harry Belafonte lent their support to the convention by performing. Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, weighing 90 pounds as a result of fasting to protest the Vietnam War, addressed the audience about issues of policing and drug access and asked, “‘[H]ow can a black kid in Harlem find a heroin pusher and the FBI can’t?'”

State delegations, national organizations, and individuals proposed resolutions in the creation of “A National Black Agenda” (Muncie Evening Press). This agenda would extend the movement beyond the convention. As convention attendee and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York Dr. Ron Daniels noted, the Black Agenda was “integral to holding candidates, who would seek Black votes, accountable to the interests and aspirations of Black people.”

Delegates from Illinois suggested fines and prison sentences for businessmen found guilty of discriminatory practices. North Carolina attendees proposed a bill of prisoners’ rights that included humane treatment and fair trials. Delegates from Indiana and other states demanded that the U.S. dedicate resources to the plight of black Americans rather than the Vietnam War and end the conflict immediately. North Carolina representatives also urged that black men receive Social Security benefits earlier than white men since their life expectancy was eight years shorter. The Muncie Evening Press noted that “Politicking was intense . . . as state delegations tried to compromise their own views with positions they felt other delegations could support.” Tensions ran so high that part of the Michigan delegation walked out of the convention.

Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Keynote speakers Reverend Jackson, executive director of P.U.S.H. and Operation Breadbasket, and Mayor Hatcher ignited the crowd and “stoked rhetorical fires aimed at molding the diverse black communities represented here into a solid unit that can tip the political balance this presidential election year and from now on” (Munster Times).

While similar in many aspects, the men’s speeches hinted at the divergence in philosophies pervading the convention. Hatcher believed change could come from within the existing two-party system, so long as the parties responded to the needs of African Americans. However, if legislators continued to neglect black constituents, black Americans would create a third party and, he told attendees, “we shall take with us the best of White America . . . many a white youth nauseated by the corrupt values rotting the innards of this society . . . many of the white poor . . . many a White G.I. . . . and many of the white working class, too.” The party would also welcome “chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians [and] Orientals” (Indianapolis Recorder).

However, Jackson, appealing to Nationalists, urged the immediate formation of a black party, potentially called the “Liberation Party.” He asserted “‘Without the option of a black political party, we are doomed to remain in the hip pocket of the Democratic party and in the rumble seat of the Republican party'” (Kokomo Tribune). Jackson also called for the establishment of black institutions to oversee black educational, economic, and judicial matters. He asked the crowd “what time is it?” and the audience, electrified, shouted “It’s Nation Time!”

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jackson’s proposal drew criticism from some black organizations, like the NAACP, which believed that continued segregation, albeit black-led, would impede progress. According to Major Problems in African American History, the NAACP circulated a memo at the convention denouncing the proposal of a separate nationhood for African Americans and criticizing the rhetoric for being “‘that of revolution rather than of reform.'” An Indianapolis Recorder editorial articulated this point, noting “The only road to nationwide achievement by a minority is through cooperation with the majority.”

Presidential campaign poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, accessed BBC.com.

Another contentious issue in the 1970s: school desegregation through the forced busing of black children to white schools. The Jackson faction opposed busing and defined successful black education not as being able to attend white schools, but rather as children attending black-led schools. The endorsement of the presidential candidate that would best represent black interests also generated conflict at the convention. Some delegations supported Democrat Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black Congresswoman, while many Nationalists wanted a leader from a black party.

After intense debate, a steering committee tentatively adopted a National Black Agenda. The committee officially published the 68-page document on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday. The resolutions included black representation in Congress proportionate to the U.S. black population, a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for four-person households, a 50% cut in the defense and space budgets, and an end to national trade with countries that supplied the U.S. drug market. The resolutions, designed to move black Americans towards “self-determination and true independence,” represented major, yet tenuous compromise among the black community.

Image courtesy of NWI Times.

The steering committee also formed the National Black Political Assembly, a body tasked with implementing the Black Agenda. Dr. Daniels noted that, although many of the agenda’s resolutions never materialized, “thousands of Black people left Gary energized and committed to making electoral politics a more relevant/meaningful exercise to promote Black interests.” He attributed the quadrupling of elected black officials by the end of the 1970s, in large part, to the Gary convention and the “audacity of Black people to . . .  defend black interests.” The NBPC was notable too for its inclusion of black Americans from all walks of life, rather than just prominent black figures, in formulating how to ease the struggles of the black community. The Recorder also noted that Mayor Hatcher’s reputation “has been considerably burnished in the white community as well as the black by the success of the historic event” (Indianapolis Recorder).

In 2012, Gary hosted the 40th anniversary of the National Black Political Convention. Speakers discussed the issues that had prevailed into the 21st century, such as a disparity in prison sentencing and poverty. One speaker remarked that without Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black president Barack Obama would not have occupied the White House. Another speaker, who ran for mayor of Baltimore, lamented that forty years after the convention “we’re still asking what to do instead of how to do it.” When asked if it was still “nation time” one speaker responded “it’s muted nation time.” Black Americans, they agreed, needed to “have the audacity.”

Contact: npoletika@history.in.gov

 

SOURCES USED:

“Black Convention Split Over Separation,” Terre Haute Tribune, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Meet Without Incident Bodyguards, Police Vigilant,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Creation of ‘The National Assembly’ Concludes Black Political Convention,” Kokomo Tribune, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Ron Daniels, “It’s Nation Time: The 40th Anniversary of the Gary National Black Political Convention,” Institute of the Black World 21st Century, March 28, 2012.

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” Columbus Republic, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Hatcher to Keynote Black Convention,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1972, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” Wilmington (DE) Evening Journal, May 19, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

John Hopkins, “Leaders Mold Black Power: Warn Parties” and James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Keeping Watch,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 10, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays, Second Edition, eds. Barbara Krauthamer, Chad Williams, and Thomas G. Paterson (Cengage Learning, 2016): 510-515.

“National Black Agenda Calls for Permanent Political Movement,” Kokomo Tribune, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Plans Span Wide Range of Opinion,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Wants Changes,” Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.