The road to establishing a legal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in New Jersey was a slow one.
During the final days of the 1974-75 legislative session, the Democratic-controlled State Senate rejected the idea of a new state holiday, saying New Jersey taxpayers couldn’t afford it.
The Assembly passed the measure two months earlier by a 56-5 vote. Democrats had a 66-14 majority at the time.
Senate President Frank Dodd (D-West Orange) was opposed to the new state holiday and sent the bill to die in committee. A group of Senators tried to move the bill for a vote, but just ten Senators voted for the parliamentary move.
“You’re not talking about civil rights,” said Senate Majority Leader Matthew Feldman (D-Teaneck). “You’re talking about dollars and cents.”
The sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Ronald Owens (D-Newark), criticized the Senate for resisting “significant civil rights legislation.”
“For the past ten years, I’ve given votes to other assemblymen on issues that affect their constituents,” Owens said at the time.
Gov. Brendan Byrne announced on his inauguration day in January 1974 that he would support a state holiday honoring Dr. King. He did it from the pulpit of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, where the new Assembly Speaker, Rev. S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton) was the pastor.
Soon, Byrne came to realize that a new state holiday came at a cost to taxpayers. State Treasurer Richard Leone said it would cost the state nearly $500,000 in overtime, so the new governor somewhat quietly backed off.
In 1974, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 73 filed a lawsuit seeking a day off for state employees in Dr. King’s honor. A state appellate court panel ruled against them, saying their contract called for a paid holiday only after the new state holiday became law. Later, the New Jersey Supreme Court sided with the union.
Some local governments, including Republican-controlled Morris County, adopted the Dr. King holiday anyway.
In 1977, facing a tough bid for renomination in the Democratic primary, Byrne signed an executive order giving state workers off on Dr. King’s birthday. The Legislature, all up for re-election, approved the state holiday bill that year and Byrne signed it into law.
This story was first published on January 21, 2019.