How Activists Used the Super Bowl to Force Texas to Recognize MLK Day as a Public Holiday

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a federal holiday in 1983, but Texas was one of several states that initially refused to recognize it. It took a group of activists and a little help from the NFL Players Association to pass the law.

In 1990, Arizona voters faced the question of whether to make MLK Day a holiday. The NFL selected Arizona to host the Super Bowl in 1993, but threatened to postpone the game if the measure was not taken.

This did not happen, and Arizona lost potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The NFL has decided that if Arizona doesn’t honor Dr. King, then Arizona won’t have a Super Bowl,” said Mario Salas, an associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and human rights activist most of his life.

Arizona is losing the game

Meanwhile, a debate of its own flared up in Texas over honoring the civil rights leader. For years, activists like Salas have been meeting with lawmakers in Austin and asking them to introduce a public holiday.

“We had a meeting and we discussed the fact that people go to Austin every year trying to get a public holiday to no avail,” Salas said, referring to Frontline 2000, a civil rights group made up of former members of the Student Movement. . Nonviolent Action Coordinating Committee: “So we chose a different tactic that was pretty radical compared to the previous tactic.”

When Arizona voters turned down the holiday, Texas jumped at the opportunity to host the Super Bowl in Houston. But if Texas didn’t have a celebration in honor of King, would that be rejected too? Frontline 2000 I decided to use this opportunity to my advantage.

“We spoke with [NFL] The player association we spoke to [then-]NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabe and told him we’re going to sue the NFL, we’re going to sue anyone else if they play the Super Bowl in Texas without honoring King,” Salas says.

The NFL Players Association agreed to boycott the Super Bowl if Houston’s bid to host was chosen. Armed with this knowledge, Frontline 2000 returned to the Capitol to convince lawmakers to support legislation making MLK Day a public holiday.

Getting an invoice for the finish line

Senate Bill 134 had already passed the Texas Senate, but it was under consideration in a House committee.

Salas returned to the Capitol and met with then-Speaker Gib Lewis to tell him that Texas’ bid for the Super Bowl would be contingent on legislators’ approval of the holiday.

“We were out of the meeting for 15 minutes and the Speaker of the House told us that the bill would be brought out of this committee in the morning and ready for a vote and eventually for the governor’s signature,” Salas said.

The bill was passed by the House of Representatives in the final days of the legislative session. and Governor Ann Richards signed into law on June 11, 1991.

Why are we marching

Despite Texas’ renewed recognition of MLK Day, the NFL decided to host the Super Bowl that year in California. But since then, Texas has celebrated King’s legacy, and eventually the rest of the states followed suit.

“Many of us who have been pushing for this have been involved in the civil rights movement for years,” Salas said. “I was at a very young age. And it was absolutely necessary to do this in order to honor the memory of a man who gave everything, gave his life in the war against racism and in the war against segregation.

This month, Reverend King will be commemorated with parades across the country. Austin will host a march on Monday starting at the MLK statue on the UT campus and culminating in a festival at the University of Houston-Tillotson.

Salas does not view these events as parades; rather, he sees them as marches—the same kind leaders like King used to draw attention to the civil rights movement.

“In those days, hiking could mean life. And this is something we must never forget,” he said. “Marsh is not so demanding to sacrifice one’s life now, but then it was, and this is a moment that we cannot forget.”

Listen to “MLK Remembered” Saturday through Friday on KUT 90.5 FM. We bring you stories of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and its impact on Austin and the world.

Copyright 2023 CUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

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