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Lawmakers pay homage to King

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At Monday's opening of the 2002 Utah Legislature, state lawmakers took time out of the hectic first-day schedule to pay homage to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Jan. 15 birthday and the social activism that characterized his life.

In his opening remarks, House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, quoted King's famous August 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, highlighting the leader's fight for civil and human rights.

"In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline," Stephens quoted, adding that legislators should emulate King's words.

A ceremony was also to be held on the House floor honoring King with comments from local dignitaries and a presentation by schoolchildren.

The first day of the session invariably coincides with the holiday because the Utah Constitution requires the Legislature begin on the third Monday in January, the same day Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed.

Some, like Karen Dace, University of Utah vice president for diversity, would prefer that the session begin on Tuesday to show respect for the day.

"It would honor this man who did so much for America," she said.

It would take a constitutional amendment to change the opening day, something that will not happen this session, said House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake.

"Well, I think ideally we would appropriately recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday by starting the session the day after," he said. "It's kind of an unfortunate circumstance that we have that conflict. It certainly doesn't fairly represent the kind of respect we should show for (King) to be in business on that day."

However, Becker said the Legislature is consistent in that it also convenes on President's Day in February, though that won't happen this year because of the recess for the Winter Olympics.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Poulton, R-Holladay, said he doesn't have a preference as to when to start the session but would want to be sensitive to public opinion on the issue.

"I think it's an opportunity for us to recognize Dr. King," he said. "If I were Dr. King, I would consider it an honor that the Legislature opens that day."

Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, said he isn't pushing for a constitutional change because the day can be used for education if things stay as they are. During the 2000 session, Bourdeaux fought successfully with late Sen. Pete Suazo to have the day's name changed from Human Rights Day to Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was also proposed, but not passed, that same year to have legislative recess on the day.

"(Changing the constitution) is not at the top of the radar," he said. "I think it's a great vehicle to educate . . . hopefully legislators are going out to educate their constituents and family members."

Bourdeaux said the push two years ago to have the name changed was based on the ideas King stood for, not any particular race.

"King was able to mobilize white, black, pink and purple." he said. "He stands for peace and justice for all."

John H. Jackson, director of education for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who is visiting Salt Lake for the holiday, said calling the holiday Human Rights Day "doesn't necessarily pay homage to the living image." He said naming the day after King reminds people they can take action to further a just cause just as King did.

Bourdeaux said the change was a win-win situation for everyone, and that in the end he was pleased with the support offered by other legislators.

"Honestly, it was a fight. It took some sheer dedication and some diligence to stay on task, to put the argument together," he said. "(But) each time you move forward for justice and equality, it's a great thing."

A program tonight at the U.'s Kingsbury Hall will honor local educators and students who are committed to social action. It will also include a cultural performance. The free tickets are gone, but those interested may gain admittance by showing up to the event at 10 minutes to 7 p.m.

E-MAIL: lwhite@desnews.com