Arizona was a holdout about honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Here’s what it cost the state 30 years ago

Good history lesson on #MLKDay: In 1990, the NFL did not stick to sports. It stripped Arizona of the ’93 #SuperBowl when the state’s citizens voted against a paid MLK holiday. After a vote in 1992 approved the holiday, the NFL awarded Arizona the ’96 game.|| Jack M Silverstein via Twitter

By Ray Stern || The Arizona Republic

Gene Blue hopes the millions of Arizonans who won’t attend work or school due to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the state Monday take pride in the struggle that culminated with making it a reality 30 years ago.

In the fast-growing state — the only one in the country to enact the holiday by popular vote — many likely are unfamiliar with the history.

“It took collective energy to make this happen,” said Blue, who has chaired or co-chaired the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee for the past 37 years. Blue, 83, organized many of the marches that became an important part of the effort to create the holiday. “We need to continue to educate about what we went through as a people, peacefully, to obtain this holiday.”

Monday’s holiday marks three decades since Arizona celebrated its first MLK Day. This year also marks 30 years since Arizona missed out on its first Super Bowl, which the NFL moved to Pasadena after voters rejected the holiday. The pullout caused an estimated $200 million to $500 million in economic loss.

Arizona is preparing to host its fourth Super Bowl on Feb. 12 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale.

Yet as recently as last year, some Black Americans still believed Arizona wasn’t a worthy location for the event.

In January 2022, about 200 pastors from Arizona and around the country sent a letter to the National Football League, asking it to once again deny Arizona the Super Bowl. This time, the letter outlined, the main problem was election bills the state Legislature passed in 2021 that “harmed” minority and low-income voters. The pastors also were angry with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., for voting against the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act” and a federal minimum wage.

The pastors didn’t continue their collective effort to pressure the NFL, but Black leaders and others who took part in the effort to make MLK Day a reality in Arizona say there is still work to do in the state

MLK Day had foe in former Gov. Mecham

Multiple cities and towns across the U.S. began honoring the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. soon after his assassination in 1968. Former President Ronald Reagan declared a federal holiday for the civil rights leader in 1983; it was enacted in 1986.

State lawmakers in the 1970s, including Cloves Campbell, Arizona’s first Black senator, Sen. Manuel “Lito” Peña and House Minority Leader Art Hamilton, took up the fight early introducing bills for a holiday that found no traction among the mostly white, male Legislature.

Arizona was not the last state to create an official, paid MLK holiday, but was perhaps the most well-known of the holdouts because of the resistance of former Gov. Evan Mecham.


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January 2023