Americans can safely count Monday, Jan. 20, 1986, as the first annual holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. A residue of bitterness spilled on the Senate floor during the final hours of debate over the proposal, as its arch-opponent, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, continued his campaign to discredit the slain civil rights leader. On every senatorial desk lay a thick brown book of excerpts from 65,000 documents that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collected on Dr. King.
In a tense exchange Tuesday with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, a chief sponsor of the bill, Senator Helms pointed his finger at President John F. Kennedy and US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who ordered wiretaps of Dr. King.
''The record is clear about his associations with far-left elements and elements in the communist party,'' Senator Helms charged of the King, who was assassinated in 1968. He even took his battle to the courtroom, trying to open sealed files of transcripts of the King wiretaps in an attempt he called putting the ''straight stick'' next to the ''crooked stick'' to see if it was crooked.
But a test vote Tuesday showed that sentiment in favor of the holiday has swamped his cause. By a 76-12 margin, the Senate rejected his motion to send the bill back to committee and smoothed the way for almost certain final approval at 4 p.m. today to set the third Monday of January as a federal holiday, beginning in 1986.
Senator Kennedy sharply rebuked his colleague, maintaining that a bipartisan Senate committee headed by then-Sen. Frank Church in 1976 had examined the documents on King. ''It laid the straight stick along with the crooked stick,'' he said, and found no evidence that communists had manipulated King or his organization.
The Church committee was ''told by the FBI that at no time did it have any evidence that Dr. King was a communist or connected with the communist party,'' said Kennedy. He added that he was ''appalled'' by the attempt to ''misuse'' his late brother, Robert Kennedy.
''If Robert Kennedy were here today, he'd be the first person to say that it was wrong ever to wiretap Dr. King,'' and would also be the first to favor the holiday, the Massachusetts senator said.
Standing by often on the Senate floor during the closing debate, was the woman who during her freshman term led the bill to an overwhelming 338-to-90 passage in the House in August.
''I haven't given second thoughts to the Helms actions,'' says Rep. Katie Hall (D) of Indiana, who says she has no doubt that the Senate will pass it easily.
The Mississippi-born former state legislator from Gary, Ind., says she arrived in Congress with the King commemoration on her mind. Although only a freshman, she became a subcommittee chairwoman for the panel that had jurisdiction over the holiday.
Representative Hall, who is black, maintains that the holiday is not for one ethnic group. Martin Luther King Jr. ''helped all of us - black, white, Hispanic ,'' she says.
''This is going to be a great holiday, a time of reflection,'' she says, and a time to remember what King ''lived for and what he died for.''
Noting that conservative Republicans who once opposed the holiday have been among her allies, she says, ''It's better to see the light late than never.'' Moreover, she points out, even in years when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, ''this legislation did not make it.''