In 1999, with very little fanfare, New Hampshire became the last state to adopt a Martin Luther King holiday, replacing its optional Civil Rights Day.
Civil Rights Day was adopted in 1990, following a major battle in the Statehouse. It was by far the largest, most divisive social issue facing state politicians that year. As Statehouse reporter for the Eagle-Tribune newspaper, I scooped the state on the inside story of the final, backroom compromise – an optional state holiday on Martin Luther King’s birthday called Civil Rights Day.
There had been right wing opposition to a national Martin Luther King holiday since it was first proposed in Congress in 1973. By 1990, NH and Arizona were the only states that had no recognition at all of Dr. King’s birthday.
The hotel and tourist industries in both states were facing boycotts. The National Football League moved a Super Bowl, scheduled for Tempe, AZ, to California. Travel and tourism is one of New Hampshire’s biggest industries, and most powerful business lobbies. They wanted a change. With no state sales or income tax, and three major tourist seasons each year, the state’s room and meals tax is one of its biggest sources of revenue.
An MLK holiday would end the boycott, and also give our enormous ski industry another 3-day mid-winter weekend.
The hold-up was our right wing Governor Judd Gregg, who HATED Martin Luther King. Gregg was a mean, snotty, entitled rich kid son of a former governor, not just a conservative.
He did not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, where he was facing suspicion and a possible ethics investigation for allegedly using his office to make money for himself from the conversion of Pease Air Force Base in NH to civilian use.
He and Mrs. Gregg were reportedly blacklisted by the au pair agency that supplied European college students as live-in child care employees. The Greggs allegedly violated the agency’s strict rules against making au pairs work too many hours, and using them as house servants, not just for child care.
Leading the opposition in the Legislature was Rep. Jacqui Domaigne, a right winger whose colleagues called her “Jackie Ptomaine.” She had a habit of making long speeches, the worst way to change minds, affect legislation, and win the respect of colleagues in that Legislature. She was on the committee that was hearing the Martin Luther King bill.
Her public position was, why single out Dr. King? We should recognize all civil rights heroes, like New Hampshire’s own John Parker Hale, a forgotten pre-Civil War U.S. Senator and Vice President, who supported abolition of slavery, whose statue is on the Statehouse lawn next to Daniel Webster’s.
The Martin Luther King bill committee hearing was held in Representatives’ Hall in the Statehouse, which holds about 500 people. Anyone who wants to can testify on any bill in any committee hearing in the NH Legislature, and a lot of people wanted to speak. Even more wanted to support one side by writing their names, addresses, and position on the bill on cards. The count, pro and con, becomes part of the hearing record.
Committee member John Sytek, R-Salem, sat in the audience next to me. (I don’t think they set up a dais for that hearing.) John and his wife Donna, also a Republican state rep from Salem, were friends of mine.
John had no preconceived ideas or beliefs, and practically no knowledge, of the issue, he told me. He intended to listen to the testimony and make up his mind. (That’s common in NH because elected representatives work for $100 per year and have no staff to read and digest their bills and mail.)
After listening to several witnesses on both sides, he whispered to me, “This is an intractable issue, like abortion. The two sides feel so strongly, they will never agree. We need a holiday on King’s birthday that is not called Martin Luther King Day. I’m going to talk to the chairman.”
The committee chairman was Bill Kidder, R-New London, a smart, courteous older gentleman whose colleagues and neighbors called him “Mister Kidder” out of respect.
Unlike Domaigne, he never made long speeches, and almost never spoke from the House floor. He was one of the most senior, influential members of the House.
Once, after the most expensive lobbying campaign in state history up to that time, over a bill to allow out-of-state conglomerates to buy NH banks, Mr. Kidder took the floor and said, “If this bill passes, I can probably make $1 million selling my bank shares out of state. But I think you should defeat it. The New Hampshire community bank is a vital part of the state economy, and I don’t think we should let it go so easily.” That’s the kind of statesman Mr. Kidder was. He was proven right a few years later in the savings-and-loan crisis, when the state’s big banoks had to be rescued by the federal government, and the small community banks looked like towers of strength.
The MLK bill went behind the scenes after that, and what came out was a compromise called “Civil Rights Day” that happened to fall on Dr. King’s birthday.
Mr. Kidder allowed Domaigne to be the primary sponsor of the bill. She got a nice write-up in the state’s largest newspaper, presented herself for years as a sponsor of landmark civil rights legislation, even got some political mileage in Manchester, where she was a city alderman, and Republican Party leader, as well as a state rep.
Gov. Gregg was OK with Civil Rights Day, and so were the supporters of an MLK holiday. The small African American community was OK with it. They held a rally in a church basement when the bill was signed. Only about half the people there were black, but it was still more African Americans than I had ever seen in one place at one time in New Hampshire.