By definition civil rights are those “rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality.” Basically this means that as Americans we SHOULD be free from unfair treatment or discrimination. Those sentiments are ideal of course, because we all know that discrimination exists, including in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire was the last state in the United States to recognize January 20th as Martin Luther King Jr. Day BY NAME. As early as 1977 a group of New Hampshire citizens met to organize a New Hampshire Committee to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The spokesmen for that group was Lionel Johnson and Inez Bishop of Manchester, and Joseph Shaw of Portsmouth. Additional New Hampshire residents noted in a Portsmouth Herald Newspaper article of that time show Rev. Ralph G. Henley, New Hope Baptist Church Portsmouth; Joseph Shaw, president Portsmouth NAACP, and Capt. Fred Taylor, Head Social Actions, Pease AFB.
The United States Senate voted to make the third Monday of January a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. on 19 October 1983 and President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law on 2nd November of that same year.
In 1993 Gov. Steve Merrill signed an order proclaiming a temporary holiday to honor King by name. In that same year, the New Hampshire State representatives and senators approved a Civil Rights Day, but they objected to including any reference to Martin Luther King Jr. for various reasons [read the story for the full details].
Finally in 1999 after concerted efforts by many people including a push by then Governor Jeanne Shaheen, the “lawmakers approved the bill, and Governor Shaheen signed it into law at a ceremony in June” of that year. New Hampshire first celebrated the re-named Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2000.
Many worked behind the scenes to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a reality. Others, including the late Reverend Dr. Arthur Hilson, Jim Splaine, Arnie Arnesen, Arnie Alpert, and several members of the New Hampshire house and senate promoted the idea of honoring Dr. King in this way. [I welcome my readers to comment if you know of more names that should appear here].
I am not sure why we are quick to hail the hawks, and reticent to praise the doves. If we teach our children only about the generals and not about the peacemakers, we encourage a dangerous future for them.
New Hampshire has its own martyr to civil rights, by the name of Jonathan Myrick Daniels from Keene. Mostly forgotten and probably never mentioned in New Hampshire’s history books, he was the model of what is right and good in the world. He died trying to protect a black woman, and was killed by a deputy sheriff in Alabama. (I wrote a story about him back in 2007).
New Hampshire has had other champions in the past, and many who work today, quietly and behind the scenes, trying to affect positive change. At their untimely death should not be when we recognize them.
To all of you who worked to have Martin Luther King Jr Day recognized, I thank you. For all of you who have stood up for the political or social right of any citizen when they were in jeopardy, I thank you. For those who work for peaceful change in our world, I thank you.
Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr.
History Channel: Martin Luther King Jr.