"What's a Smilin' Face When the Whole State's Racist?"
January 20, 2020 6:36 AM   Subscribe

In 1991, rap group Public Enemy released 'By the Time I Get to Arizona,' a song about Arizona's failure to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday.

The song's title is a reference to Jimmy Webb's 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix,' originally recorded by Johnny Rivers, popularized by Glen Campbell, epically covered by Isaac Hayes (and by lots of other people, including jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby). It samples Mandrill and the Jackson 5. It was later covered by Latin funk band Brownout. The controversial video, in which Public Enemy rapper Chuck D assassinates the Arizona governor, aired on MTV exactly once (though it was highlighted on Nightline--music critics who appeared in that segment have mixed feelings). The song's introduction features Sister Souljah, who was criticized in 1992 by Bill Clinton (inspiring the phrase 'Sister Souljah moment') before becoming a bestselling author.

The vote to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday first came to the House in 1979. President Reagan, who initially opposed the holiday, signed it into law in 1983 (Arizona senator John McCain voted against it (as did Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley, both of whom are still in office), and North Carolina senator Jesse Helms filibustered). Not all states chose to observe the holiday. In 1986, Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt created a state holiday. In 1987, his Republican successor Evan Mecham reversed the decision, saying “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.”

The NFL threatened to move Super Bowl XXVII, scheduled to take place Phoenix, if 1990 MLK Day ballot measures were voted down. Voters didn't approve either of two measures, and so the Super Bowl was moved to the Rose Bowl. In 1992, voters in Arizona approved a paid holiday.

New Hampshire, also mentioned in the song, changed the name of 'Civil Rights Day' to 'Martin Luther King Day' in 2000--South Carolina and Utah made it an official holiday in that same year. It is still not, exactly, celebrated nationwide--Alabama and Mississippi use the holiday to honor both King and Confederate general Robert E. Lee, and Arkansas did the same until 2017.
posted by box (34 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
I used to work at [UTAH-BASED COMPANY] and, at least as of a few years ago, they still referred to MLK Day as "Civil Rights Day." At this same company, employees at the Utah HQ got off work every year for Pioneer Day.

So, apparently the Utah "Pioneers" were deserving of recognition, but not MLK. Possibly related : The Mormon Church's problematic history with race.
posted by panama joe at 8:38 AM on January 20 [14 favorites]


I was in the flower of my youth -- high school and undergraduate years -- when PE were at the peak of their powers, and I'm often saddened by how many of their songs are still 100% relevant and topical now that I'm solidly middle-aged.

Of all their songs, By the Time I Get to Arizona is the one I play most often for my kids. First time I played it for them, they couldn't believe there was a controversy over the holiday...and they were absolutely floored I told them it's still a contentious matter in some places.

To paraphrase Sister Souljah's intro, it's messed up that we're still trying to teach some white people the meaning of civilization.
posted by lord_wolf at 8:48 AM on January 20 [26 favorites]


I can't believe I'm sitting here working on MLK Day, nor that my bosses looked at me as if I *shouldn't* be working on MLK Day. WTF
posted by riverlife at 9:00 AM on January 20 [4 favorites]


Saw them perform this live in 92 on their Apocalypse 91 tour. If memory serves correctly they segued from the ending "There will be the day we know those down and who will go" to their anthem Fight the Power by chanting "Go!" repeatedly.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:04 AM on January 20 [8 favorites]


The east-coast conglomerate I work for (I'm on the west coast) gives us Columbus Day off, but not MLK, Which I've always thought was weird. I've always assumed this was an East Coast Thing(tm) but is it really?
posted by Dr. Twist at 9:33 AM on January 20


From the Vox article:
Rather than create a state holiday that honored King alone, [Idaho] would broaden it to include, in theory, anyone.

Until 2000, Utah’s holiday did not mention King by name: MLK Day was known simply as Human Rights Day.

Alabama and Mississippi still celebrate a “King-Lee” day that lumps King together with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose birthday is January 19. Until 2000, Virginia took this idea even further, creating a “Lee-Jackson-King Day” that also honored Confederate leader Stonewall Jackson.
"Black lives matter" "All lives matter"
plus ça change
posted by theory at 9:43 AM on January 20 [9 favorites]


Also, Isaac Hayes' version of Phoenix was the source for the piano loop used in Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.
posted by lkc at 10:15 AM on January 20 [2 favorites]


The east-coast conglomerate I work for (I'm on the west coast) gives us Columbus Day off, but not MLK, Which I've always thought was weird. I've always assumed this was an East Coast Thing(tm) but is it really?

My Houston-based conglomerate observes Good Friday as a company holiday, but not MLK Day or Columbus Day (or Veterans Day, or Yom Kippur).
posted by nickmark at 10:17 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Also, Isaac Hayes' version of Phoenix was the source for the piano loop used in Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos. yt

right album, wrong track. It's Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic you're looking for.
posted by philip-random at 10:22 AM on January 20 [5 favorites]


Until 2000, Virginia took this idea even further, creating a “Lee-Jackson-King Day” that also honored Confederate leader Stonewall Jackson.

As a native Virginian educated in the Virginia public school system (class of 2003 represent!), I'm so bewildered by this. The first I heard of that bastardization is from a college friend who grew up in a more rural part of the state, that in her high school, the Friday before MLK Jr. Day was "Lee-Jackson Day" and they got the afternoon off. I remember being like "You called it what now?"

My county didn't do that, exactly, but there was/is a school named after Robert E. Lee, and one of the major thoroughfares is technically Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway -- though to the best of my knowledge, everyone's always called it Rt. 50 -- so I'm not sure I really had the moral high ground there....
posted by basalganglia at 10:24 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


philip-random: Thank you! Somehow that got stuck in my head as part of the very long tail of phoenix. I'm clearly way past-due for a Hayes-a-thon.
posted by lkc at 10:31 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


My city renamed its Confederate Boulevard in 2015. Two of the city directors (one of whom represents a majority African-American district) did not vote in favor. A year later, one of these directors was the only vote against a resolution asking the state to repeal the Robert E. Lee portion of the King/Lee holiday. They are both still in office.
posted by box at 10:35 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


So the reason why Illinois celebrates/(celebrated?) Casimir Pulaski Day is that it was a trade off after getting MLK day on the calendar. Apparently the thought process was something like 'if black people got a holiday for their guy, white people should get one too'.

I don't think I've ever gotten MLK day or Columbus/Indigenous People's day off in my working life, and I'm surprised whenever I hear of someone who does.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:49 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Apparently the thought process was something like 'if black people got a holiday for their guy, white people should get one too

I remember that sentiment coming up a lot when I was high school student -- at a very integrated school, at that -- in Oklahoma. "Why don't we [white people] get a day? Why is there is a black history month but not a white history month?" Fuckers, every day is white people day and every history class is white people history class. The whole freaking year is white history month.
posted by treepour at 1:09 PM on January 20 [6 favorites]


Seen on a bumper sticker with the Arizona state flag: “But It’s A Dry Hate.”

Nailed it.
posted by spitbull at 2:14 PM on January 20 [27 favorites]


In Georgia, Martin Luther King Day is a sacred day that we take to remember Dr. King and his contributions to our state, and I love it.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:42 PM on January 20 [3 favorites]


There are many scenes from the Eyes on the Prize docuseries that are much more violent and hateful than the music video, the difference being that the violent stuff happened in real life, and the music video is some make believe
posted by eustatic at 3:13 PM on January 20


It s fascinating but scary to read the old articles supporting this expression in 1992, but when Kathy Griffin wanted to make a similar statement, more recently, she was abandoned by the industry
posted by eustatic at 3:16 PM on January 20


Orin Hatch is no longer in office. Utah’s senators are now Mike Lee and Mitt Romney.
posted by interogative mood at 3:29 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


The Kleptones introduced me to this song with their Flaming Lips mashup. Don't think I've ever seen the video for the original before!
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 3:45 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Last year my wife and I were out for a hike in our blue state that borders Arizona. We came across some asshole on the trail who wished us a happy Robert E. Lee day. Threw me off kilter so much I didn’t respond.

I came to the conclusion that it’s just another one of the fox new bunch’s dogwhistles.
posted by SteveInMaine at 4:38 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


though to the best of my knowledge, everyone's always called it Rt. 50

It's still widely called "Lee Highway" in Arlington (though there, it's Route 29). There's a redevelopment effort underway, but it does not include a name change.
posted by toxic at 4:52 PM on January 20


Love that song. In 5 days Australia has its national "holiday" - a commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet and the beginning of the ongoing destruction of indigenous people and culture.

We will be knee-deep in the malodorous braindroppings of idiots who cannot understand why celebrating the destruction of people is a bad thing.

Sometimes I think Australian racism isn't as virulent as American racism, but its definitely just as stupid and cruel.
posted by awfurby at 4:58 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


"Why don't we [white people] get a day? Why is there is a black history month but not a white history month?"

For the same (basic) reason that my dad gave when I'd asked why there's a mother's day and a father's day but not a kid's day: "because every damn day is kid's day."
posted by nushustu at 5:54 PM on January 20 [7 favorites]


Or why they don't give the blue shell to first place in Mario Kart.
posted by lkc at 6:05 PM on January 20


Alabama and Mississippi use the holiday to honor both King and Confederate general Robert E. Lee

Both states observe holidays honoring Jefferson Davis (Alabama has a stand-alone holiday on June 1st, while Mississippi has the last Monday in May as National Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis’s birthday). There's also a "Confederate Memorial Day," celebrated on the last Monday in April. Neither state wants anything to do with Honest Abe: in Alabama, "Presidents Day" on the 3rd Monday in February takes pains to honor Washington and Jefferson (born April 13, 1743), while Mississippi calls this holiday Washington's Day. Alabama state holidays, Mississippi state holidays.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:08 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Is this where I get to say that race is a social construct, created by white people (yes, all of them at the same time) to create a reason to enslave those of darker skin tone? Yes you may disagree, however, you'd be wrong. It's science AND history!
posted by evilDoug at 6:31 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Easier to just say race is a construct but racism is a thing that people deal with in objective reality instead of that.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:35 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Denying the role of racism is absurd, and focusing on some imagined insult to white people in this context is offensive. I'm giving you a 24 hour ban. This is a warning: this isn't an ok way to participate here.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 7:03 PM on January 20 [8 favorites]


Unhappy with "Lee Day?" GO REGISTER VOTERS. Print the forms, stuff them in envelopes, carry them with you, and ask The Question: Are you registered to vote? This CRUSHES DESPAIR. The fire of freedom is kindled with a single tiny spark.

YOU BE THE SPARK!

If a person is in office–particularly in a majority black district–that acts in rank disrespect of human rights in general and black people in particular, the answer is to organize and VOTE THEM OUT.

You're within your rights to not vote. If that's your choice, fine. But if you aren't voting, and you voice one single complaint about current conditions, you really need to use a mirror and contemplate your life choices.

People died so you can vote. The least you can do is consider honoring their sacrifice by taking action. This year, it's particularly important: it might be the last time we get to have a vote that means anything.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 7:28 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


I can't believe I'm sitting here working on MLK Day, nor that my bosses looked at me as if I *shouldn't* be working on MLK Day. WTF

My brother doesn't work on MLK Day. A few times employers have asked why he didn't come in and he's shows surprise/confusion and reminds them it was MLK Day. The white person looks confused for a minute and then says, "oh OK." He's found that white people are uncomfortable having further conversation with a black man regarding why he didn't come in on MLK Day. They just nod awkwardly and nobody mentions it again.
posted by shoesietart at 12:36 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


> As a native Virginian educated in the Virginia public school system (class of 2003 represent!), I'm so bewildered by this. The first I heard of that bastardization is from a college friend who grew up in a more rural part of the state, that in her high school, the Friday before MLK Jr. Day was "Lee-Jackson Day" and they got the afternoon off. I remember being like "You called it what now?"

I don't know when it eventually shifted, but as late as 1998, it was still officially called "Lee-Jackson-King Day" in the Norfolk/Va Beach area. As in, that's what the sign on the bank said to explain why they were closed on a Monday. (It boggled my mind every time I saw it.)
posted by desuetude at 7:20 AM on January 21


Back when I went to ASU in the early 00s, we only observed MLK every other year. The alternative holiday was just "regular" President's Day. It made for a confusing calendar, but I wonder if this was a hang-over from Arizona dragging it's feet. Huh.
posted by lizjohn at 8:43 AM on January 21


I remember going to a U2 concert at ASU's stadium in October of 92. Public Enemy came out and played this song, and told us that they couldn't play in the state again until we made things right. And then they left. It was pretty amazing.

As much as Arizonans complain about the bad governors that we had back then, we didn't approve the holiday until the NFL applied pressure.
posted by eckeric at 4:12 PM on January 21 [2 favorites]


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