Last State Gets King Holiday

New Hampshire will join the rest of the nation in celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day next year after 20 years of refusing to honor the slain civil rights leader with a permanent holiday.

The House voted twice Tuesday in favor of adding King's name to the state's Civil Rights Day holiday, held the third Monday in January when every other state honors King.

The first vote, 212-148, was on the House version of the bill, which now goes to the Senate. The second vote, 183-148, was on an identical bill the Senate passed earlier this month.

The Senate is expected to pass the House version Thursday. Both bills will then go to Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who said she will sign both to give credit to all the sponsors.

Shaheen, who like her predecessor added King's name to the holiday by proclamation each year, joined about 75 people who gathered on the Statehouse steps after the vote. About a dozen clasped hands and sang, We Shall Overcome. "I want to congratulate all the people who worked so hard in passing this legislation, not just today but for the last 20 years," she said. "It confirms what our history is -- supporting all people equally."

Rep. Jane Kelley, D-Hampton, urged lawmakers to support the bills so "the ugly stain of racism and bigotry can be cleansed from the beautiful face of our state." King "was a giant among men, and in honoring him we honor all who worked for civil rights," she said.

Rep. John Pratt, D-Walpole, described walking through the streets of Atlanta in King's funeral procession. On one side of the street, mourners saw City Hall with flags lowered and the portico draped in black crepe. On the other side of the street, they saw Confederate flags flying high, he said.

"It was a vivid reminder that in death, as in life, Martin Luther King Jr. was a figure who evoked deep, deep passion," he said. "I hope my colleagues today will vote in this chamber to dispel any doubt about on which side of the street this venerable building and the people we represent stand."

Opponents argued that singling out King would detract from other American heroes such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Rep. Donald White, R-Hudson, said he opposed the bill "for the simple reason that the history of this great nation reflects the pride and energy of all our people." He added, "If we establish holidays to honor ideals, perhaps we should not reserve a day for one person."

Rep. Ed Putnam, R-East Hampstead, said New Hampshire shouldn't feel pressured to change just because every other state has a permanent King holiday. "Madame Speaker, if you and 398 members of this House and jump out that window, don't look for the 400th member to jump out behind you," he said.

Lawmakers created Civil Rights Day as a compromise in 1991 to honor "the many people from a variety of cultural backgrounds who fought and died in the stuggle to gain freedom and equality for all individuals."

A King holiday bill first came before the Legislature in 1979 and has been introduced nearly every two-year session since. The latest attempt failed by one vote in the House in 1997.