This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
While Utahns commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, few may remember the struggles that eventually dragged the Legislature into officially honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Utah lawmakers faced mounting pressure to join other states in creating a state-paid holiday honoring King.
That came after Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1983 creating a federal holiday for King, which took effect in 1986, though the measure had to get around a filibuster led by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
One by one, states followed suit, although some couldn't bring themselves to call the holiday by King's name.
In Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, the holiday was named after King and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. In Virginia, it was known as Lee-Jackson-King Day (the Jackson was for another Confederate commander, Stonewall Jackson).
Utah passed a bill in 1986 naming the holiday Human Rights Day, including the phrase "also known as Martin Luther King Day," almost as an afterthought, said Forrest Crawford, a Weber State University professor who is a member of the MLK Commission, which he co-founded. Then-Gov. Norm Bangerter signed into law the creation of that commission as an official government entity in 1991.
The bill designating Human Rights Day was a compromise by then-Sen. Terry Williams, D-Salt Lake City, Utah's first African-American state senator.
Before that compromise cleared the overwhelmingly Republican and white Legislature, it withstood some vigorous and often humorous debate.
Of the many versions of the name offered by legislators trying to avoid all-out adoration of King, my favorite was the name proposed by Rep. James Moss, who later became the state superintendent of public schools. He introduced an amendment that would label the holiday "Utah People's Day" to honor the state's diversity.
I remember hearing jokes that the "diversity" touted meant celebrating the folks from the First LDS Ward (or congregation) as vigorously as those in the Second, Fourth or 14th wards.
During those debates, Williams arranged to have King's widow, Coretta Scott King, come to Salt Lake City and address the Legislature. When she concluded her speech, the lawmakers graciously gave her a standing ovation, although I noticed about a half-dozen House members, mostly from rural Utah, who stayed seated and looked down at their desks during the applause.
The Legislature changed the holiday to Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2000, becoming the last state to officially do so.
Still, that didn't end the controversies surrounding Utah's relationship with the King celebration.
In 2010, Sen. Mark Madsen proposed a bill that would have made the third Monday in January a shared holiday between King and famed gun manufacturer John Browning.
That didn't sit well with civil rights advocates, who noted that King was murdered with a rifle in 1968.
Madsen dropped the measure, but his effort and the support the idea gained from other legislators led civil rights attorney Avery Friedman to exclaim, "What's the matter with you people?" when he was the keynote speaker at a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial luncheon in Salt Lake City in 2012.
The Legislature later honored Browning by declaring the .45-caliber Browning pistol Utah's official firearm, making the state the first to have an official gun.