King holiday becomes law in Utah
SALT LAKE CITY – Pledging to promote the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr., Gov. Mike Leavitt signed into law a bill naming the third Monday of January after the slain civil rights leader.
With Thursday’s signing, Utah becomes the last state after New Hampshire to recognize King by name. The state has celebrated Human Rights Day since 1986, when the federal government decided to celebrate a King holiday.
”Surely we’ve moved many steps forward in our relationship with this state,” said Ed Lewis, who heads the Utah, Idaho and Nevada chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ”We hope to bring the state of Utah even further … in its relationship to minorities.”
The bill did not pass without some controversy.
Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, Utah’s only black legislator, introduced the bill this session only to see it defeated 5-4 in committee. It was resurrected after two absent legislators were summoned to overturn the vote and get the bill to the floor.
”I want to continue to work to carry Dr. King’s legacy forward,” Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake City, said Thursday. ”We’re done some good things but we’ve got a long way to go.”
Some lawmakers argued that the state had not recognized individuals by name in the past and that the Human Rights Day designator was more broad-reaching and fair.
On that line of reasoning, an amendment was added to the bill changing the name of the third Monday in February from Presidents Day to Washington and Lincoln Day.
Supporters of the bill did not let that setback – or a fire alarm that went off during the signing due to sparks from loose wiring in a construction area in the basement – cloud Thursday’s celebration at the state Capitol.
”There is a spirit in this room that includes Dr. King’s family,” said Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake City, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Gov. Leavitt recalled a recent meeting with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.
”I came away with a profound appreciation for the lasting contributions he has made to our world,” Leavitt said. ”It is a privilege today for me to sign (this bill).”
Others said they were ready to use the momentum of the signing to work on concrete issues like improving education and job opportunities for minorities.
”I think now is time to get past the symbolism and to the hard work,” said Betty Sawyer, president of the NAACP in Ogden. ”Like Dr. King said, it’s not where you stand at times of comfort but where you will be in times of controversy.”