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N.H.'s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Didn't Happen Without A Fight

Minnesota Historical Society

It’s been 14 years since New Hampshire lawmakers voted to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

New Hampshire was the last state to have a holiday to observe King by name.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, those who pushed for the holiday in the Granite State say it’s important to remember that it didn’t happen without a fight.

Arnie Arnesen remembers every detail of her first floor debate as a member of the state House of Representatives.

“It sounds crazy, but I can tell you what I was wearing.”

It was 1985 and the legislation she was supporting would have recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday in New Hampshire.

Arnesen, now a radio talk show host, recalls being up until 2 in the morning the night before crafting her argument.

“I remember thinking how was I going to explain why it was so important to me, a white Norwegian, Italian protestant. And I remember writing something to the effect of that this really represented the minority in all of us.”

She and others made their case. Then the votes came in.

“We only got 60 votes. And I remember being so shocked.”

But efforts to mark the day in New Hampshire date back even further to 1979, when Senator Jim Splaine filed the first of what would be many failed bills.

Then, in 1983, President Reagan signed into law a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. Most states quickly followed suit.

But New Hampshire and a few others held out.

Opponents argued that New Hampshire’s small African-American population – roughly 1 percent – meant the issue wasn’t a pressing one for the state.

They also took issue with King’s position against the Vietnam War.

A grassroots campaign formed to change that and lawmakers filed bills virtually every session to mark the day.

And front and center was Arnie Alpert, the spokesman for the Martin Luther King Day committee in New Hampshire.

“We tried to keep the focus on why it was good for New Hampshire to do that, not simply why it was embarrassing for the state to stay in that anomalous role.”

New Hampshire took a step closer in 1993, when New Hampshire lawmakers approved Civil Rights Day.

Opponents of naming the day after King argued that the movement was bigger than one man.

But for Arnesen and others, that wasn’t enough.

“I couldn’t accept Civil Rights Day because individuals matter. Movements don’t exist but for some remarkable human being who inspires change.”

But things were about to change.

Governor Jeanne Shaheen used her 1999 inaugural address to bring the issue to the forefront.

“We cannot end this century without making Martin Luther King Day a part of the heritage we leave to our children.”

Later that year, lawmakers approved the bill and Governor Shaheen signed it into law at a ceremony in June.

In 2000, New Hampshire recognized its first Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

But that it took so long for the state to recognize the holiday still resonates with some residents.

“It was really strange to me that all the talk was around all these other things, except the real reason was that we really didn’t want to honor a man of color.”

JerriAnne Boggis is the director of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

She recalls reading every couple years about how the state Legislature had killed another effort to mark the day.

“Finally, when we could say we were the last state in the nation to do it, it was like a sigh of relief. Even my kids said, ‘Oh, finally. You know? We finally did it. It finally happened.”

She says it was important her children live in a state that recognized a man so important to history.

“I think sometimes we as adults tend to forget how kids will respond to that or what lessons they’re learning.”

While New Hampshire was the last state to recognize King by name, the same debate was going on in other states.

In Utah, lawmakers voted in 2000 to officially mark Martin Luther King Day, which up until then had also been known as Human Rights Day.

Also that year, South Carolina made the holiday a paid state holiday; before that, state employees had to choose between Martin Luther King Jr. Day or one of three confederate holidays.

Regardless, those who fought for the recognition in New Hampshire say it was a battle worth fighting.

Executive Councilor Deb Pignatelli sponsored legislation during her time as a state representative, and then as a state senator.

“I wasn’t happy about us being last, but I was pleased that we were at least among the states that passed this, that recognized this extraordinary, nonviolent, peaceful individual.”

Now, as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, events will be held across the state to pay tribute to one of the most memorable speeches in the nation’s history.

Michael serves as NHPR's Program Director. Michael came to NHPR in 2012, working as the station's newscast producer/reporter. In 2015, he took on the role of Morning Edition producer. Michael worked for eight years at The Telegraph of Nashua, covering education and working as the metro editor.

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