Martin Luther King Jr. Day was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan and first officially observed as a federal holiday Jan. 17, 1986. It commemorates a civil rights leader who advocated peaceful resistance as a means of achieving equality under the law between all races. He gave his life for the cause when struck by an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum) in 1968 at Memphis, Tennessee.
Shortly after his assassination, efforts were launched in Congress for a day equal to Presidents Day or Veterans Day to recognize the iconic figure generally credited as most influential in spearheading passage of the Civil Rights Act.
A bill was introduced in 1969, but because of King’s controversial activism against the Vietnam War and with high ranking members of the Senate and House from the South, where integration still faced opposition, the repeated efforts stalled in committee.
Individual state legislatures, however, picked up where Congress left off. In 1973, Illinois became the first state to formally adopt a holiday in remembrance of him. Multiple other states passed such legislation, mostly in the New England region, and momentum began to build for federal recognition as 6 million signatures were gathered on petitions calling upon Washington to act.
Despite opposition from the Southern block of states, a bill was introduced to the House in 1983 for the 20th anniversary of King’s legendary March on Washington and was overwhelmingly approved by a more than 3-to-1 majority.
The Senate, though, balked under protest by Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, until the head of the Senate Labor Committee, Edward Kennedy, brother of former President, John F. Kennedy, proved conspiracy theories about King and ties to Russia, to be illegitimate.
The Senate overrode objections by Helms, and approved creation of the holiday by a 78 to 22 vote. President Reagan formally applied his name to Public Act 98-114 two weeks later, on Nov. 3, and the holiday was finally set to first be observed the third Monday of January 1986.
This year, 2021, is an opportunity to celebrate the 35th anniversary of this hallmark date and the man and ideals it represents. It also is a reminder of another watershed example of legislation, particular to Iowa, that serves as a ubiquitous symbol of the progress embodied in the King holiday.
When Iowa was incorporated as a state in 1846, its Black population was assessed at approximately 300. The Missouri Compromise was still in effect, which said that slavery would be prohibited north of the Mason Dixon Line that bordered Iowa and its southern neighbor state. When Iowa’s legislature met, it was deeply concerned that former slaves would subsequently run north and inundate the state, stealing jobs from white European settlers and bringing crime to its fledgling communities.
Debating the issue, while they realized they could not overturn federal law, instead the General Assembly decided to skirt it by passing the Exclusionary Act of 1851. In it, the state House of Representatives adopted by a vote of 20 to 18 and the Senate by a tally of 9 to 7, to prohibit any “free Negro or mulatto” from settling in the state. If any attempted to do so, each would be jailed and charged two dollars a day for every day in which they violated the Code. Apparently content that 300 was not a threat, the legislators also inserted a provision exempting all blacks already in the state from the law (although they could not vote, be on a jury, attend public schools with whites, serve in public office, or marry anyone not of color).
The settlement prohibition remained the standard for immigration to Iowa until ultimately challenged in court in 1863, when a Black Mississippi-born slave named Archie Webb, escaped his master’s plantation and enlisted in the 3rd Iowa Artillery for service in the Civil War.
On leave, he followed a few of his comrades to live with them at their home near Hopkinton, in Delaware County. While later visiting Des Moines, he was given summons saying that he violated the Exclusionary Act and would have to leave the state. Webb, through his friends, filed a writ of habeas corpus stating that he was unlawfully arrested, and in a case of great implications, was brought to the courtroom the following week.
The prosecution argued that Webb was in clear violation of the Exclusionary Act and that he must be immediately escorted out of Iowa. The judge presiding over the hearing, however, was an avid abolitionist and, after considering both sides, declared that “all men are by nature, free” and that all men meant “nothing less than all the human race.” He went on to proclaim the Exclusionary Act illegal and void, and as such, that Webb should and would remain a free man.
With the Emancipation Proclamation having been issued by President Lincoln that same year, no challenges to the court’s ruling were filed, and a year later, in 1864, the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate repealed the discriminatory provisions of the act from the State Code.
By 1870, the federal census showed more than 5,700 citizens of color to be residing in the state. Today, it exceeds 105,000, roughly equal to the entire populace of Cedar Rapids in the year in which Dr. King’s dreamed Civil Rights Act took effect.
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As we observe the 35th anniversary of the holiday named in his honor, let us acknowledge the progress made since the Iowa Exclusionary Act of 170 years ago and look to strive for the fulfillment of his larger dream when we can each, as nothing less than all the human race, shout from the mountain top, “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last.”
David V. Wendell is a Marion historian, author and special events coordinator specializing in American history.