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Granite State Struggles With Civil Rights on Civil Rights Day

IN its typically contrarian and independent fashion, New Hampshire was the only state that didn't officially celebrate Martin Luther King Day yesterday. Instead it observed ''Civil Rights Day.'' School districts had the option of closing - most did - and state employees could opt for the day off.

From the first state that declared its independence from tax-greedy Britain, and where there's still no income tax, comes an unconventional view on a holiday most states adopted in the 1980s.

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But Civil Rights Day is still hotly debated here. This year, the volume went up a notch when angry protesters pushed a white supremacist group off the statehouse steps.

Richard Barrett, head of the Learned, Miss.-based Nationalist Movement, stood with four supporters in Concord, N.H., with a banner that proclaimed ''Majority, Not Minority Rule.'' But a group, calling itself the National People's Campaign, charged at Mr. Barrett and his supporters, knocking down the group's podium and flags while shouting ''Nazism must go.''

Barrett, who received permission from the state to hold the rally, demanded the National People's Campaign leave the area. ''It's interesting on the so-called Civil Rights Day, the civil rights people won't let me speak.''

The National People's Campaign is composed of students, union members, gay and lesbian activists, and others.

Jim Van Dongen, spokesman for the House of Representatives, also said Barrett's group has a right to free speech, but noted the Legislature voted last week to condemn the group and its reasons for congregating.

Barrett's message is an uncomfortable one for many in the state, especially in this high-profile primary year. Those against a Martin Luther King Day here should ''hang their heads in shame'' because of Barrett, says Democrat Lionel Johnson, a state representative.

While there is disagreement over the name and focus, both sides here say that the third Monday in January should not solely celebrate one African-American leader from the 1960s who sought to empower blacks.

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''We do a disservice to the civil rights issue when we pigeonhole it to the '60s,'' says Jacquelyn Domaingue, a former GOP state representative and an author of 1991 Civil Rights Day legislation.

''We've got to take the color away from it,'' adds Mr. Johnson, the state's only black legislator. A person's ''content, not their color - that's what Dr. King always talked about.''

But King Day proponents say racism clearly lurks beneath at least some of the opposition to the holiday. ''The idea that what King represented is not important to us as whites in New Hampshire has racist undertones,'' says Arnie Alpert of the Martin Luther King Day Committee, a group that backs establishing a King holiday.

But if the racism still exists, Mrs. Domaingue sees the continuing controversy over Civil Rights Day as having value. It raises the issue more than a quietly accepted King Day. ''Obviously we haven't gotten to the point where we're all treating each other with respect,'' she says.

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