Three Musicians Who Boycotted Arizona Until We Recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day


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We’re celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day today in Arizona.

But it wasn’t always so, and the road to recognition of the holiday in our fair state was fraught with problems.

Here’s the Cliffs Notes version for those unfamiliar with the controversy:

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made the third Monday in January a national holiday to honor the fallen civil rights leader. The day was observed for the first time in 1986.

Our Democratic governor at the time, Bruce Babbitt, made MLK Day an Arizona holiday later that year. But when Republican governor Evan Mecham took office in January 1987, he repealed Babbitt’s proclamation “on the grounds Babbitt did not have the authority to declare such a holiday,” according to the Arizona State Library. Instead, he suggested a day to honor all civil rights leaders, one that would be celebrated on a Sunday (when no one would get a paid holiday).

(By the way, just in case you think this was Mecham’s only misstep, please note that he only spent 15 months as governor before he was convicted in an impeachment trial on charges of obstruction of justice and misuse of government funds, and removed from office.)

The issue was taken to the people of Arizona in 1990 in the form of Proposition 301 (removing Columbus Day as a paid holiday and replacing it with MLK Day) and Proposition 302 (adding MLK Day as a paid holiday); both propositions were rejected by the voters.

Arizona voters eventually approved making MLK a paid state holiday in 1992 by approving Proposition 300, but not before heaps of scorn and heavy financial losses were inflicted on the state. Arizona even lost the opportunity to host the 1993 Super Bowl because of our refusal to observe MLK Day after NFL owners voted to move the game.

Musicians were just some of the people to take Arizona to task for its MLK Day stance. U2 didn’t cancel their 1987 show at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, but their manager read a statement to the audience: ”We were outraged when we arrived in Arizona last weekend and discovered the climate created by Governor Mecham’s rescission of the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

But other artists chose to boycott Arizona until we officially recognized the holiday. Here are a few.

Stevie Wonder was a longtime advocate for a national holiday to celebrate King.EXPAND

Stevie Wonder was a longtime advocate for a national holiday to celebrate King.

World’s Direction via Flickr

Stevie Wonder

Wonder was an early advocate for a day devoted to King; his 1980 song “Happy Birthday” paid tribute to King with lyrics like “You know it doesn’t make much sense / There ought to be a law against / Anyone who takes offense / At a day in your celebration.” He also spearheaded a rally in favor of the holiday in Washington, D.C., in 1981.

In 1986, Wonder publicly stated he wouldn’t perform in Arizona until it recognized MLK Day. After voters approved the day in 1992, he participated in Arizona’s first MLK celebration in 1993.

The Doobie Brothers, seen here in 1982, canceled an important reunion concert in metro Phoenix over the MLK Day issue.EXPAND

The Doobie Brothers, seen here in 1982, canceled an important reunion concert in metro Phoenix over the MLK Day issue.

David Gans via Flickr

The Doobie Brothers

The California rockers were scheduled to perform a benefit reunion concert on the Gila River Indian Reservation in 1987, but pulled out in response to Mecham’s actions.

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Public Enemy

If anything good came out of Arizona’s embarrassing and disrespectful refusal to honor Martin Luther King Jr., it’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” one of the greatest protest songs of all time.

Public Enemy’s furious anthem, which came out 30 years ago this year, includes lyrics like “I’m countin’ down to the day deservin’ / Fittin’ for a king / I’m waitin’ for the time when I can / Get to Arizona” and, ostensibly referring to Mecham, “The cracker over there / He try to keep it yesteryear / The good ol’ days / The same ol’ ways / That kept us dyin.'”

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