Jan 19, 2015 10:27 AM

NH once a national pariah as the last holdout on MLK holiday


CONCORD - With Martin Luther King Day celebrations so embraced here, it's hard for some to even remember how much of a pariah New Hampshire was in the mid-1990s.

New Hampshire was the final holdout, the only state in the nation without a holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader by name.

President Ronald Reagan had made it a federal holiday in 1983 and the issue only came to the forefront here a decade later when the National Council of Churches threatened a boycott of the 1992 first-in-the-nation primary here. Some national newspaper columnists applauded the idea.

So the Legislature took a half step creating New Hampshire Civil Rights Day without mentioning King? Why? Republicans controlled the Legislature and the governor's office and many in the GOP resented King for his strident opposition to the Vietnam War.

Republican Gov. Steve Merrill supported the sentiment for change signing non-binding proclamations to mark 1993 and 1994 that mentioned King by name but lawmakers made no moves to follow suit.

King supporters weren't in any mood to celebrate. They kept pushing and the tide turned after Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen easily won re-election in 1998. She made a King holiday a major theme of her inaugural address two months later.

By June 1999, Shaheen was signing a King holiday into law removing New Hampshire's distinction.
Historians and political observers conclude it wasn't wholesale racism among the state's elected officials though some lawmakers made racist comments.

A more telling factor was basic indifference in a lily white state where less than 1 percent of its residents who were African Americans.

Milestones of Martin Luther King Day NH Drive

1979: Portsmouth Democrat Jim Splaine authors 1st King holiday bill
1983: Ronald Reagan signs federal King holiday law
1985: King holiday gets only 60 votes in 400-person House
1989: By now, 44 states have own King holiday laws
1991: NFL moves Super Bowl from Arizona in protest
Nov. 1991: National Council Churches threaten NH primary boycott
1992: Arizona blinks, adopts King holiday, gets 1996 Super Bowl
Jan. 1993: Gov. Steve Merrill signs King day proclamation, not binding
May 1993: New Hampshire creates NH Civil Rights Day law
January 1994: Bernice King, a daughter, calls NH "racist and separatist."
January 1999: Gov. Jeanne Shaheen's inaugural address calls for King holiday
June 1999: Shaheen signs King holiday into law

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