How MLK Changed the Super Bowl

martin luther king mlk med

In 1968, just four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Michigan Congressman John Conyers first introduced legislation to create a holiday to remember him. It was neither a quick nor an easy process.  The country was still deeply divided by race and racially motivated violence persisted. African Americans still suffered from many disadvantages, including higher poverty rates and lower physical health than whites.

Conyers was quickly joined by New York Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. Together they continued to resubmit the King holiday legislation for each subsequent legislative session for 15 years.

Finally after mounting public pressure and civil rights marches, Congress passed the legislation in 1983, which was then signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

Still, several states continued to resist celebrating the holiday. Some felt that the entire civil rights movement should be commemorated rather than one individual. Some disagreed on the holiday all together.

Bruce Babbit
Governor Bruce Babbitt

In Arizona, lawmakers weren’t quite ready to pass the holiday, however Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt disagreed. On May 18, 1986 Babbit signed an executive order of his own to create the holiday, citing the need for, “the citizens of Arizona to rededicate themselves to the compassionate philosophies by which Martin Luther King, Jr. lived.”

But less than a year later, before the new holiday had even been celebrated, newly elected Governor Evan Mecham immediately rescinded Babbitt’s decision.

Mecham said that Babbitt, did not have the authority to single-handedly declare a paid state holiday and that the decision had been made illegally. Mecham went on to say he thought only Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were worthy of state holidays.

“My predecessor in this office chose to assume authority and declare a paid state holiday to observe the birthday of Dr. King. The law clearly states that only the legislature has that authority — has the authority for such an act, and that authority cannot be usurped by executive order.”

This act unleashed a firestorm of criticism and frustration from local and national figures, including the reverend Jesse Jackson. Dr. King’s widow Coretta Scott King and musician Stevie Wonder promoted a complete entertainment and convention boycott of Arizona. Stevie Wonder, who was scheduled to perform in Tucson, promptly cancelled and made a public statement that he would never come to Arizona.  Other entertainers and groups across the nation supported the boycott.

By October of 1987, 46 meetings or conventions scheduled for cities in Arizona were cancelled. Economists projected those meetings would have brought in over $25 million dollars to the state.

Governor Evan Mecham
Governor Evan Mecham

As the state and businesses saw major dollar signs disappearing before their eyes, combined with the outspoken governor’s ability to boldly say the wrong thing at the wrong time the “Recall Mecham” campaign got started.  Mecham’s actions were ridiculed in cartoons, Arizona radio stations created spoof songs about the Governor, and several of the state’s major newspapers called for Mecham’s resignation or recall. All of this eventually lead to Mecham’s impeachment and removal from office in April of 1988.

By 1989, the Arizona state legislature had successfully created the holiday, but opponents forced a vote by the people and in 1990 Arizona voters rejected the initiative to create an MLK holiday.

Meanwhile, in March of 1990 the NFL met  to select the site of the 1993 Super Bowl. Civil-rights advocates in Arizona sent representative Art Mobley to the meeting to make sure the King Holiday issue was considered in the discussions. The committee voted tentatively to award the game site to Arizona, but made it clear that they wanted to avoid any racial controversy.

After the vote, committee chair Norman Braman met with Art Mobley and vowed that “if anything was done to dishonor the memory of Dr. King,” the committee would vote to change the site of the Super Bowl planned for Sun Devil Stadium.

Only 12 hours after the NFL became aware of the results of the popular vote, the league quickly followed up on their promise and moved Super Bowl XXVII from Arizona to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued a statement prior to owners vote.

“I don’t believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the NFL. I will recommend to NFL clubs that this Super Bowl will be played elsewhere. I am confident that they will follow the recommendation. Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor.”

Arizona felt the impact immediately and for years to come.

Martin Luther King

Arizona’s decision not to honor the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday caused the state to deal with years of fights, marches, loss of business, and failed referenda.  Finally, in 1992 voters approved of a state King holiday and Arizona became the first and only state to popularly vote for and approve a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Holiday. In the end it had cost the state 170 conventions and a Super Bowl – a grand total of over $360 million dollars in lost business.

On March 23, 1993, the NFL awarded Super Bowl XXX (1996) to A.S.U.’s Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ.

In 2008 Super Bowl XLII(42) was hosted at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, AZ. And Super Bowl XLIX (49) will be played in Phoenix, Arizona on February 1, 2015.

Reverend Warren Stewart
Reverend Warren Stewart

In a recent interview with The Arizona Republic, 25 years after Mecham overturned Babbitt’s decision, Reverend Warren Stewart, the pastor of the very church in which Gov Babbit signed his executive order on the pulpit of, said he hopes Americans and Arizonans reflect on what King stood for. “Non-violent, peaceful relationships among all people, regardless of race, creed, color, culture, faith.”  He added, “There is division and incivility in politics today that are turning his dream into a nightmare,” Stewart said. “He (MLK) would say, ‘I want you to wake up out of the nightmare before it’s too late. ”


MLK Holiday Timeline

1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated; Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduces legislation for federal holiday to commemorate King
1973 Illinois is first state to adopt MLK Day as a state holiday
1983 Congress passes, President Reagan signs, legislation creating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
1986 Federal MLK holiday goes into effect
1987 Arizona governor Evan Mecham rescinds MLK Day as his first act in office, setting off a boycott of the state.
1989 State MLK holiday adopted in 44 states
1991 The NFL moves the 1993 Super Bowl site from Phoenix, Ariz., to Pasadena, Calif., because of the MLK Day boycott.
1992 Arizona citizens vote to enact MLK Day. The Super Bowl is held in Tempe, Ariz. in 1996.
1993 For the first time, MLK Day is held in some form—sometimes under a different name, and not always as a paid state holiday—in all fifty states.
1999 New Hampshire becomes the last state to adopt MLK Day as a paid state holiday, replacing its optional Civil Rights Day.
2000  Utah becomes the last state to recognize MLK Day by name, renaming its Human Rights Day state holiday.
South Carolina becomes the last state to make MLK Day a paid holiday for all state employees. Until now, employees could choose between celebrating it or one of three Confederate-related holidays.

Follow Kim at @Kim_PPI and click here to visit her Pro Player Insider page




One Response to “How MLK Changed the Super Bowl”

  1. Matthew Robinson

    Thank you Kim Snyder for this enlightening and educational article. I didn’t know that Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt was instrumental in having his state recognize the MLK Holiday as a national and permanent Holiday in his state.

    Thank you for that. I will save this article in my Favorites so I can read for years to come and share with my children, grandchildren, etc.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.