WATCH: Republican President Reagan’s Jaw-Dropping Press Conference the Day Martin Luther King Holiday Was Passed


“When a Hollywood performer, lacking distinction even as an actor can become a leading war hawk candidate for the Presidency, only the irrationalities induced by a war psychosis can explain such a melancholy turn of events.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., November 1967.

As the nation prepares to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the heels of President Joe Biden’s voting rights speech and the GOP pearl-clutching that followed it, it’s worth remembering that venerated Republican deity Ronald Reagan opposed the King holiday right up until the day he signed it, and made no bones about it at a press conference the day the law passed.

Then-President Reagan held a press conference on October 19, 1983, the day the U.S. Senate passed the law creating a federal King holiday by a veto-proof margin of 78-22. At that press conference, Reagan fielded several questions about Dr. King, the answers to which failed to cover the Gipper in glory.

Then-ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson asked Reagan about then-Senator Jesse Helmssmear of Dr. King as a communist sympathizer.

“Do you agree?” Donaldson asked.

“Well, we’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” Reagan replied, adding that “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.”

“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,” Reagan added. “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.”

Not content to simply defend Helms, Reagan then made it clear he was only willing to sign the law reluctantly. When Donaldson asked Reagan if he thought the King holiday should be undone if Helms’ smears were borne out decades hence, Reagan revealed that he still preferred that Dr. King not receive a federal 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.

But since they seem bent on making 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.

“They seem bent on making it a national holiday.”

Without delving into who, exactly, is the “they” Reagan references, the fact is that the bill had passed both houses of Congress with ironclad veto-proof majorities. If anyone was “bent,” it was Reagan, by the expressed will of Congress.

Later in that same press conference, NBC News White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell followed up on the King holiday, pressing Reagan on yet another of his many objections to the honor, and asked a very uncomfortable follow-up question.

“Mr. President, you have said in the past, a year and a half ago, following up on Sam, that you had real reservations about the expense of another national holiday,” Mitchell said. “In fact, to quote you, you said, ‘It might be that there is no way we could afford all of those holidays that we would have with people who are also revered figures in history of many of the groups that make up our population.’ So I’m wondering, why have you changed your mind now about the holiday for Dr. King, and why are you willing to sign that legislation?”

“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,” Reagan said. “I think that the symbolism of it is worthy of this.”

“I’d like to follow up, then,” Mitchell said. “Can you explain to us why you’ve decided to spend the coming weekend in Augusta at a golf club that is very exclusive and that we understand has no black members?”

Reagan hemmed and hawed his way through his uncomfortable answer.

“I don’t know anything about the membership, but I know there is nothing in the bylaws of that club that advocates any discrimination of any kind,” Reagan said. “I saw in a recent tournament down there, a national tournament, I saw blacks playing in that tournament on that course. I’ve been invited as a guest to go down and play a round of golf on the Augusta golf course, and, as I say, I think I’ve covered all that I know about it.”

Reagan did, indeed, spend that weekend at Augusta, and in another bit of oddly resonant history, wound up trying to talk down a gunman who took hostages at the club. The man was upset by layoffs at U.S. Steel, and later said he’d had no plans to kill Reagan, but that “I just wanted to talk to him. I was protesting our government giving our jobs to foreign people.”

For those tempted to swallow Reagan’s lip service to the King holiday, rendered after he was presented with a bill he could not possibly have prevented from becoming law, and signed above his own explicit reservations, consider the letter he sent just weeks before that press conference.

Former Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr. (R-NH) sent Reagan a letter pleading with him to veto the King holiday, calling Dr. King “a man of immoral character” and repeating Sen. Helms’ charge of communism.

Reagan’s response was to agree with Thomson, and hope Congress would change its mind:

 On the national holiday you mentioned, I have the reservations you have, but here the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality. Indeed to them, the perception is reality. We hope some modifications might still take place in Congress.

That was October 3, less than a month before Reagan signed the law.

Some in the media started early trying to rehab Reagan’s reputation. Brit Hume, reporting then for ABC News, ignored Reagan’s continued opposition to the law in his report on the bill’s passage, saying that “Senator Helms’ friend and ally Ronald Reagan apparently doesn’t think he is right. Reversing his earlier opposition, the president plans to sign the bill.”

But some knew better. ABC’s Sam Donaldson threw tons of shade when he reported on the bill-signing, saying “The White House staged an impressive ceremony today. The president and Dr. King’s widow walking to the Rose Garden together in an effort to spruce up Mr. Reagan’s tattered civil rights image.”

“The president signed the bill which he had straw so strongly opposed, making Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Reagan delivered remarks before some 200 invited guests which, while not quite calling Dr. King a great American, were designed to honor him,” Donaldson said.

When Reagan did sign the law, he delivered a speech that some observers at the time saw as walking the line between conservative opponents of civil rights and supporters of Dr. King.

But in private, Reagan’s racist attitudes would only become clear to the public after his death when a racist telephone conversation between then-California Governor Reagan and then-President Richard Nixon from 1971 was unearthed and released in 2019.

The call took place in October of 1971, during which Reagan and Nixon discussed the United Nations delegation from the United Republic of Tanzania following a vote on a resolution to seat China in the world body.

“Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said in the brief recording.

“Yeah,” Nixon agreed.

“To see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Reagan continued, to hearty laughter from Nixon.

Watch the clips above, via The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Titles are mine.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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