Many young people may not realize the movement it took to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday and recognized as such. It was long after King died in 1968 that the conversation began around how to more formally recognize his contributions. The movement to make his birthday a national holiday gained considerable momentum in 1980, with Stevie Wonder’s “Birthday Song” becoming a rallying cry.
By 1983, when petitions with 6 million signatures were presented to Congress, the demand of the people could no longer be ignored and on Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill.
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Despite the national recognition of the holiday, many states and communities were slow to recognize and observe the holiday. That was the case in Wichita. Each year, a few protestors refused to show up for work and a straggling few students stayed home from school, but official recognition of the holiday was non-existent.
By 1986, our Wichita heroes — Bess Dreams and Emmadell Robinson — were fed up and refused to take it anymore. While Dreams and Robinson are recognized for the efforts to have the King Holiday recognized in Wichita, their initial effort was generated by a call to Robinson from her sister Mearlin Overton.
Both Robinson and Overton worked at banks, two of the earlier African Americans hired to work at banks in Wichita. Overton noticed the federal banks would be closed on the King Holiday, and in all other cases when the federal bank was closed, local banks were closed as well. But the King holiday, once again, was going to be an exception.
Overton called Robinson, and she was mad. Her question to Robinson was, “What are we going to do about it?” That was enough to start a movement that motivated 10,000 and led to the formal recognition of the King Holiday across Wichita.
Robinson called her good friend Bess Dream, another Wichita trailblazer. Dreams was the first African-American female to work in the office at Kansas Gas Service. She, like Overton and Robinson, recognized that the position she held was the result of work of many, including King.
As with most great movements, a meeting was called. Some of those in attendance were educators: Dr. Evies Cranford, Dr. John Gaston and Clarence Wesley, just to name a few. A plan was hatched to ensure Wichita honored the King Holiday’s federal validity.
Their efforts started with a writing campaign to city officials, state legislators, big business owners and school district leaders. As organizers of the movement, they continued to focus on the question, “How can we make them aware of our displeasure?” Their next answer – a march.
They reached out to labor unions, churches and the NAACP and in a time ahead of social media they called on friends and connections and encouraged them to tell others.
“They all wanted to be involved, they just needed some motivation,” said Dreams. “Everybody took the lead, once we did that – it was a concerted effort on everybody’s part.”
The group realized that not everyone would be able to participate in the march, so they came up with a plan that allowed individuals to show their support beyond the march. Robinson borrowed her husband’s credit card, and with a budget of $500, the group designed and purchased King Holiday Buttons. The initial buttons sold for $1 each, and they sold out quickly. So, they ordered more. They had to place another reorder and eventually sold more than 1,500 buttons.
“It (the buttons) was just a show of solidarity. It was a statement; a way to show how we felt,” said Dreams.
On the third Monday in January 1986, the city was ready for the march with a 9 a.m. start time. With cold January weather forecast, the duo optimistically hoped for 500 marchers. At 8:30 a.m. the duo arrived at the gathering spot, the old Mathewson Junior High School at 17th and Chautauqua, to a crowd of already 1,000. By the time the crowd took off down 17th Street toward city hall, the crowd was too large to count.
The Wichita Eagle headline proclaimed a crowd of thousands, but KFDI radio reporter Fred Ervin set the size at 10,000.
“Fred was standing on the I-135 overpass looking down,” said Bess. “He said by the time the ministers arrived at the overpass (a little more than a mile) people were still leaving the gathering site.”
Even though it was a cold day, Dreams says the crowd was pumped. There were families. There were husbands and wives that bought their children wanting to be a part of it. People took their children out of school and took off their jobs. To the duo’s amazement, the crowd was diverse, and almost 50% White.
“It was one of two times that I saw Wichita that people came together as one,” said Dreams. (the other was when candidate Barack Obama came to Butler County Community College.) “It was a cold, but sunshiny, beautiful day.”
In another show of collaboration, Robinson remembers the owners of Thunderbird Bus Company, who had their offices near I-135 and 17th Street, pulling out their buses and transporting older people the balance of the distance to city hall.
The rally at city hall, led by members of the Wichita Ministerial League, was a fitting conclusion to the day, with the mayor and several members of the city council coming out to show their support.
That evening, the march made CNN national news and the next year, the King Holiday was officially recognized by the city, county, school district and many of the city’s major employers.
“We know it would have come around eventually,” said Dreams. She’s probably right, but Wichita didn’t have to wait for eventually.
For more than a decade following the march, Robinson and Dreams helped organize events.
“Because God is love, it’s not about Black folks or Red folks,” Robinson said, “it’s about all of us coming together to get along and to understand each other. When there is a man out there who is wanting everybody to respect everybody, why not uplift his name and what he did?”