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Arizona Still Embattled Over Statewide King Day

Cities hurt by lost conventions; Fiesta Bowl protested

ARIZONA may not officially recognize Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 21, but few Arizonans could be unaware that most states do so. The state has been embroiled for months in an argument over whether to observe the holiday. New Hampshire and Montana are the only other states that do not officially observe the late civil rights leader's birthday (Jan. 15, 1929) or the day on which he was assassinated (April 4, 1968).

Rejection in November of a ballot proposal for observing Martin Luther King Day (MLK Day) was by no means the first or last word on this issue.

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The Rev. Warren Stewart, who heads a group called Victory Together says: ``In Arizona, Dr. King is still at the back of the bus.''

The opposition group, Preserve Our Vote/Legal Defense Fund, chaired by former Gov. Evan Mecham, strongly rejects the notion of a state-paid King holiday. Robert O. Rose, treasurer of the group, says, ``I have a lot of objections to the name MLK being on anything. It has nothing to do with his being black.''

The Rev. Mr. Stewart responds that ``the opposition group uses the fa,cade of [King's alleged] personal immorality. They are quick to forget that George Washington was a slaveholder. How much more immoral can you be than to own another person as your personal property?''

On New Year's Day, the Fiesta Bowl football game between Louisville and Alabama shared top billing with activities related to the King holiday dispute. From a small group seeking signatures on petitions to resurrect the holiday issue to the halftime festivities and the players, activists worked to keep the issue alive.

Pregame and halftime activities centered on King's legacy and the United States Bill of Rights.

Members of both football teams wore emblems in remembrance of Dr. King. Outside the stadium, the Rev. Warren Stewart, a Baptist minister in Phoenix, led a group gathering signatures to submit to the Arizona Legislature when it convenes Jan. 14.

The King holiday has been a subject of hot debate in Arizona since former Gov. Bruce Babbitt declared in 1986 an official holiday for which state employees, and by tradition most others, would receive their regular pay.

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When Mr. Mecham became governor in 1987, he rescinded the holiday. In May 1990, current Arizona Gov. Rose Mofford signed a bill reinstating the King holiday.

Groups opposed to the holiday forces responded by obtaining enough voter signatures to place a referendum question on the Nov. 6 ballot: Proposition 301 would have eliminated the state-paid Columbus Day and substituted a paid MLK Day. A second, more straightforward holiday referendum question also got onto the Nov. 6 ballot: Proposition 302 recommended adding a state-paid MLK day. Both measures failed.

``Two out of three voters did vote for a MLK holiday,'' says Dr. Bruce Merrill, director of the Media Research Program at Arizona State University in Tempe. But having two MLK questions on the ballot, he says, ``divided and confused voters as to how to get a holiday.''

Merrill also says a threat by the National Football League (NFL) to pull the 1993 Superbowl out of Phoenix if the King holiday were rejected backfired. ``It made voters livid,'' he says. ``Where you have rugged, individualist-type people, they don't want to be blackmailed into voting one way or another.''

JoJo Rein, press assisant to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, says: ``Mr. Tagliabue feels it is in the best interest of the NFL not to play the Superbowl in a city that does not honor Martin Luther King. With more than 50 percent of league players being black ... it's not good to play football in a city that doesn't honor Martin Luther King as a black leader.''

Larry Hilliard, vice president of communications for the Phoenix and Valley of the Sun Visitors and Convention Bureau, says it is too early to determine the extent of revenue loss the King holiday rejection will cause. In addition to the NFL threat, the National League of Cities has pulled its convention out of Phoenix. The resulting loss of revenue is estimated at $6.9 million.

Mr. Hilliard says that ``when Mecham rescinded the holiday back in January 1987, a lot of conventions pulled out. We had some 58 groups cancel, which represented an economic impact in excess of $30 million.''

Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson had a video produced on the King issue, and he also is speaking with prospective convention groups, describing Phoenix as a city that cares deeply about minorities.

The mayor's press secretary, Scott Phelps, notes that about 21 cities in the state have a paid King holiday including Phoenix, Tucson, Scottsdale, Flagstaff, and Tempe.

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