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The Nevada Independent

Former legislator reflects on long road to designate Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Nevada

King’s legacy became entrenched in the Las Vegas area during the ’80s through youth events and parades, followed by passage of long-fought legislation.
Naoka Foreman
Naoka Foreman

It took 12 years of advocacy and setbacks in the Legislature before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a holiday in Nevada in 1987 through AB116 — a measure that also declared the day after Thanksgiving to be a legal holiday. 

The law that created the holiday celebrated Monday was sponsored by former Democratic Assemblymen Morse Arberry and Wendell P. Williams, and passed in a Democrat-majority Assembly with bipartisan support — with five state senators out of 21 voting no. Wiliams, 73, said pushback came from a small group of northerners even though a federal holiday honoring King was established the year before.

He said people were worried that more holidays about the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement, which aimed to dismantle segregation and discrimination against Black citizens, would follow — although Williams says King’s focus was more broadly on “peace and brotherhood.” 

“People say civil rights leader but actually he was a human rights leader,” Williams said. “Dr. King made an impact throughout the world because … he dealt with the human being, promoting the human reality of people.” 

The former lawmaker said that in 1987 most of the Black lawmakers were from Southern Nevada and had moved to Las Vegas from Louisiana's delta or Arkansas — stemming from waves of migrations from the segregated South in the 1940s

Williams said the migration was spurred mainly by pay inequality and that people moved away from the rural South because they made about $2 to $3 a day for a full day's work. He said the townspeople were very poor and communal, and that Black children's schools ended at noon in spring because “it was time to harvest cotton” and that teachers lived with families to save money.

“It didn't matter if some people went to pick cotton and some didn't,” he said. “Everybody just lost their education. So we understood, I think, a little more clearly when people like King would speak on human rights and civil rights.”

Williams said Black Southerners headed west to the desert city hoping to secure jobs paying up to $25 a day at places such as the Hoover Dam, Basic Magnesium Plant or in the hospitality sector. 

Economic benefits

It was a long, hard fight at the statehouse to get a holiday in Nevada commemorating King’s legacy with lawmakers bringing it back until it passed, he said. 

The late Joe Neal, who was the first African American to serve in the state Senate, presented SB15 to enact the holiday in 1985 but the proposal died in the Committee on Government Affairs. That was after he spoke on the anniversary of King’s assassination about the importance of supporting a leader who believed in nonviolent protest after a white supremacy group tried to overthrow the government by violence.

Neal’s daughter, state Sen. Dina Neal (D-North Las Vegas) said, “I think it was a significant milestone for him, Wendell and Arberry, to get that passed because it was a recognition not only of our own history, but a recognition of having Black Nevadans in America.”

She said her father’s passion behind the bill was rooted in his experience growing up during Jim Crow in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s “where literally, there were no rights for African Americans regardless of whether there was congressional law or not, regardless of whether there was a 14th Amendment.”

In 1987, organizers helped two Black-owned bus lines transport three busloads of people — for free — to the statehouse to support the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill that lawmakers brought back. Williams said he believed that lawmakers passed the policy because he helped them see the economic benefits.

“When I moved to Las Vegas, I don't remember anything being said [about King] on King's birthday,” he said. Williams moved to Las Vegas from St. Joseph, Louisiana, in 1977. 

But he argued Nevada stood to gain from people enjoying a long holiday weekend that would also educate people on King’s philosophy and activism.

“Before we got the holiday, all the hotels raised their rates to the holiday rates. They charged more for shows, food — and we didn't even have a holiday,” he said.

The 1987 official signing of Assembly Bill 116 which created the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Nevada, with former Assemblyman Wendell P. Williams pictured in the center with Gov. Richard Bryan. (Courtesy of Wendell P. Williams/King Week Las Vegas)

A committee for King

In 1981, prior to being elected, Williams founded the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. committee, which he said helped collect 15,000 signatures to show lawmakers that many people were on board with the new state holiday. He said the committee also supported community organizers who worked on petitions, collecting 20,000 signatures to rename Highland Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 1986.

That came after an unsuccessful move to rename Owens Avenue after King in 1981, which drew more than 3,000 protesters including North Las Vegas officials who submitted a letter in opposition to city leaders.

The committee helped establish the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in Las Vegas in 1983 as well as peripheral events such as youth night, which was a talent show held at UNLV that started the following year. It has since grown into the “Young Dreamers” program that honors outstanding students from schools with Black namesakes. 

The committee also launched an interfaith service in 1984 that continues to this day and is based on King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that calls for clergy members to come together, despite their religious differences, to help all people. 

“It was just natural to go for a bill,” Williams said when asked about his motivation behind sponsoring the holiday law.

King’s vision for human rights

UNLV African American Studies professor Tyler D. Parry said King was a global leader for human rights and that his progression toward promoting politics that focused on eliminating “the three evils — racism, exploitative economics and militarism” — is what led to his assassination in 1968. He said this resulted in him being recognized as a 20th century Christian martyr at the Westminster Abbey, a royal church in the center of London, in 1998, where a statue in his likeness was placed. 

The Associated Press reports that King’s name can also be found across Africa as the name of schools, streets and bridges.

Parry said civil rights and human rights are not mutually exclusive and that King is a civil rights leader in the U.S. because he made criticisms of the American Constitution and encouraged legislative changes to expand access to democracy, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

He said through King’s civil rights organizing, coalition building and confrontation of democratic principles, he forced America to “look in the mirror” — an exercise, he said, that made white Americans feel uncomfortable.

“And this just comes from a very long Black tradition,” he said. “Frederick Douglass did this very often when he would give speeches, in that he would point out basically the hypocrisy of the U.S. government in allowing Jim Crow laws to proliferate when they were in direct violation of constitutional principles.”

Parry said in order for King’s legacy to be elevated, his political image was deliberately made “approachable by white people who were just one generation removed from Jim Crow at that point.” He said since the Ronald Reagan administration, King’s political image has been “sanitized” and used to develop “color blind” politics that suggest that systemic racism ended with slavery.

Parry said King was very aware of the “problems that were persisting with systemic racism throughout society” and focused on the Civil Rights Movement to ensure people could live without being harassed, subject to discrimination or brutally violated by police. 

He said King later focused on a “broad unification of people” across the globe. 

“Because within King’s philosophy, every person in existence was interconnected with the other, even to the point of being interconnected with the way we treat nature,” he said.


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