Flashback: Ronald Reagan’s ‘jaw-dropping’ presser on the day Martin Luther King holiday was passed

Virtue signaling may be prominent now, but it is certainly not a new phenomenon and when considering President Ronald Reagan’s maligned remarks regarding the creation of the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. as a federal holiday with a decrease in GOP approval for it, the trend suggests Republicans gravitating in a positive direction.

In 1983, following veto-proof votes from both chambers of Congress, Reagan signed the annual celebration of MLK Day into law leading to its first observance at the federal level on January 20, 1986. Two weeks prior, the president acknowledged his willingness to sign the law, but not without first addressing the concerns of others alongside his own general disagreement with creation of the holiday.

“While I would have preferred a day of recognition for his accomplishments and what he meant in a stormy period in our history here, I would have preferred a day of recognition similar to say Lincoln’s birthday, which is not technically a national holiday, but is certainly a day reverenced by a great many people in our country, and has been. I would have preferred that,” Reagan said during a press conference the day the Senate voted 78-22 in favor of adopting the holiday.

As it happened, 18 of 55 Republicans voted against passage showing the elected officials skewed from public sentiment that had, according to one Harris poll, only 48 percent approval among Republicans with 42 percent disapproving.

Now, according to a poll conducted between Jan. 8-11 with The Economist and YouGov, only 41 percent of Republican voters remain in favor while disapproval has also shrunk to 36 percent. Those unsure climbed from 10 percent up to 23 percent.

Progressives would no doubt attempt to ascribe falling support to racism amongst Republicans as they seemed to do at the time with NBC News’ White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell calling out Reagan’s upcoming appearance at the Augusta National Golf Club, which at the time had no black members, but other questions in the poll negate that position. Of note, Democrat disapproval was near to Republicans at 29 percent compared with 66 percent approval.

When asked if Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” was still relevant today 69 percent of Republicans agreed while 31 percent did not. Those numbers were near the overall average which showed 74 to 26 percent on the question of relevance.

Furthermore, when asked how much of  that dream of racial equality had been realized, the outlook of GOP voters was far more positive than that of Democrats with 52 percent arguing “a great deal of it” or “quite a bit” had happened compared to 33 percent.

Reagan and the Republicans at the time had voiced concerns over the cost of having another federal holiday which meant more spending while the economy was still recovering from record high inflation which wouldn’t been seen again until President Joe Biden’s administration.

Others, like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) had suggested that King was a communist sympathizer to which Reagan responded during the press conference, “Well, we’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?”

“I don’t fault Sen. Helms’ sincerity with regard to wanting the records opened up. I think that he’s motivated by a feeling that if we’re going to have a national holiday named for any American, when its only been named for one American in all our history until this time, that he feels we should know everything we should know about an individual,” the president stated before explaining, “And I say I don’t fault his sincerity in that, but I also recognize there is no way that these records can be opened. Because an agreement was reached between the family and the government, with regard to those records. And we’re not going to turn away from that or set a precedent of breaking agreements of that kind.”

Reagan went on to express of the votes from Congress, “But since they seem bent on making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day’s important enough that I would, I’ll sign that legislation when it reaches my desk.”

When his willingness was questioned, he concluded, “Because I think this has become so symbolic of what was a very real crisis in our history, and a discrimination that was pretty foreign to what is normal with us, and the part that he played in that. I think that symbolism of it is worthy of this.”

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Kevin Haggerty

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