JACKSON — Three decades after the state of Wyoming finally adopted the holiday that commemorates Martin Luther King Jr., some question why the date can’t be dedicated solely to the slain civil rights leader.
The fact that Wyoming observes the holiday at all is a tribute to the persistence of Liz Byrd, the state’s first African American senator, who tried each year for a decade to sway her colleagues to support it. Ultimately, in 1990, she accepted a compromise, and the Legislature lengthened the title to include “Wyoming Equality Day,” joining a small minority of states that refused King a day to himself.
“I was surprised when I learned the details,” Jackson resident Julia Johari wrote in a letter to the Town Council, asking that the board recognize the third Monday in January as it is federally recognized.
“This gives no recognition to Dr. King, nor his contributions towards the civil rights movement in our country,” she wrote. “I have spoken to many town residents with various political viewpoints and we all seem to agree that this is idiotic.”
Teton County’s legislators agree that 30 years later, it might be worth considering a change to the name at the state level.
Sen. Mike Gierau said he “would just as soon have it that way.”
“Maybe the time’s come to give that another shot,” he said. “I think Martin Luther King deserves that kind of recognition.”
Both Gierau and Rep. Mike Yin said the upcoming 2020 legislative session isn’t the right time to pursue such a change, considering the focus will be on the budget. With hundreds of bills already stacking up, they said it would likely not be a high enough priority to gain the two-thirds majority vote necessary to introduce legislation.
But Yin also likes the idea of renaming the holiday, saying “that will be something I try to investigate during this session.”
He said he would spend the coming months talking with senior lawmakers — some of whom were around in 1990 — to learn why they named the holiday as they did. At the time, some argued that King wasn’t the only significant figure in the Civil Rights Movement, and noted that the U.S. hasn’t honored, for example, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln with holidays.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day faced a rough road to approval in a handful of other states, even after President Ronald Reagan declared it a federal holiday in 1983.
In some cases, as in Wyoming, it was enacted only via compromise. For example, in Arizona it’s known as Martin Luther King Jr./Civil Rights Day, and in Idaho as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Idaho Human Rights Day.
A few Southern states — including Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi — combined it with celebrations of Robert E. Lee, who commanded the Confederate States Army during the Civil War. Because Lee’s birthday falls around the same time, the pairing is convenient, but according to The New York Times, critics have argued that it’s an “unholy merger that commemorates both freedom and slavery.”
At the time Wyoming approved its version of the holiday, Byrd considered it a win to have it even partially devoted to King. According to the Casper Star-Tribune, on the day then-Gov. Mike Sullivan signed it into law, she praised her fellow lawmakers and focused on King’s legacy rather than on legislative tribulations.
“He took us on a journey toward equality, but he never returned,” said Byrd, who died in 2015 at age 88. “As a nation, we can return home. We can return to the promise of peace. ... All I ask of you today is to recognize the dream, know the dream, keep the dream alive and let freedom ring.”