This coming Monday, Jan. 18, Colorado will celebrate the holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. The measure was successfully carried in the Legislature in 1984 by Rep. Wilma Webb, D, and Sen. Regis Groff, D, both of Denver. That ended 10 years of often bitter debate on the issue.
King’s birthday is actually Jan. 15, but Colorado’s sponsors agreed to use the federally passed holiday date of the third Monday in January. The federal holiday passed Congress and the U.S. Senate in 1983.
Webb’s draft of the bill, House Bill 1201, removed any state expense, according to a Denver Post article written by Cindy Parmenter. Webb combined the holiday celebrating the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. That avoided an extra holiday for state employees.
Rep. Bill Artist, R-Greeley, wrote Parmenter, amended the bill before it left the House providing “the holiday be submitted to state voters in November 1984.” Webb argued against the amendment but voted to keep the bill alive, and it passed the House 33 to 32. Senate Republicans realized a referendum “would bring large numbers of black Democrats to the polls and jeopardize the election bids of Republican candidates both locally and statewide.”
GOP senators removed the referendum from the bill and returned the measure to the House by a vote of 23 to 5. Now Webb had to consider opposition to her bill by Speaker Bev Bledsoe, R-Hugo, and how to answer the coming discussion on the House floor regarding the referendum.
There were three possible motions: (1) vote to adhere to the House position, (2) send the bill to conference committee, and (3) accept the Senate version (no referendum) and repass the bill. Rep. Webb asked for my thoughts on how to force a vote on accepting the Senate version.
I told her to move to adhere to the House (referendum) position. (That motion was met with cries of “no!”) Then make a substitute motion to have a conference committee. Then move the final substitute motion accepting the Senate version. That would force a vote on the substance. The vote for the Senate version was 38 to 26. All 26 “no” votes were cast by Republicans. Fifteen Republicans joined 23
Democrats voting for the Senate version in repassing the bill.
For the few who studied the House rules, the strategy was called “hogging the mic” but it had never before (or since) been used by one legislator making the motions in the order that forces a vote on the one motion desired by the sponsor.
If the strategy had not been used it would have been extremely easy for the vote on a conference committee to take precedence, and a “yes” vote could have been justified by lukewarm supporters as a vote to “save the bill from defeat.”
The language in the House Journal does not show all three motions being made, just the conference and the Senate version. Afterward, Speaker Bledsoe had the rules changed so that no single legislator would be able to offer all three motions.
I saw Rep. Webb at an event recently. She took out her wallet and showed me the paper on which I had written the motions and the order of moving each one, forcing a vote on the Senate version.
In 1987 the state Legislature was in session during the King parade. All three black members of the House — Webb, Gloria Tanner, D-Denver, and Sam Williams, D-Breckenridge — were excused in order to be in the parade. Rep. Tanner asked me to provide the remarks at the mic on the eulogy for Dr. King before the House.
The night before the address, I still was not certain what I was going to say. I awoke in the middle of the night, and it suddenly came to me. I got up and wrote down my comments and, without any changes, delivered these words to the House the next morning:
“Today is a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. As on most holidays, the Legislature is in session, and, traditionally, we spend a few moments in contemplation.”
“I don’t want to review the chronology of Martin Luther King’s life. Most of us know it. I would rather consider the choice that he made.”
“He had found his profession as a minister. He had a lovely wife. His future was secure. All he had to do was play it safe. But he didn’t.”
“Instead he chose to take on a task that appeared so hopeless and against such overwhelming odds. Some might call it divine inspiration. I prefer to think it was his psyche … that part that makes each of us unique.”
“Did he have fear? Of course he did. He was not a stupid man. The last recorded lynching in the United States had occurred in 1952. But to be a black man who could be placed in a jail in Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi in those years was to be a man in danger of dying.”
“So he made a choice — to give up his security, to place himself in danger — because he could not do otherwise. He overcame his fears, and, in the process, he helped others overcome their fears.”
“He was not the first to do so, nor will he be the last.”
“During the Korean War, many of our American boys were captured by the Chinese. Most stayed loyal to their country, to their ideals, despite their fears, their lack of adequate food and clothing. A few chose to collaborate, to accept a few benefits in return for selling out their fellow Americans.”
“Security vs. danger. There is a choice.”
“What is the message I got from the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr.?”
“We only come this way once. And there has to be some driving force that impels us on, other than the accumulation of personal wealth or personal comforts.”
“We have to be true to ourselves, loyal to our ideals, understand why we have been given life, ready to accept our fears and strong enough to overcome them.”
“If we can do this, we can honor the Martin Luther King Jr. that exists in each of us.”
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.