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How activists used the Super Bowl to get Texas to recognize MLK Day as a state holiday

 Members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at UT Austin lay a wreath at the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the UT campus in 2018.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
Members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at UT Austin lay a wreath at the Martin Luther King Jr. statue on the UT campus in 2018.

King's birthday became a federal holiday in 1983, but Texas was one of several states that refused to recognize it at first.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became a federal holiday in 1983, but Texas was one of several states that refused to recognize it at first. It took a group of activists and a little help from the NFL Players Association to get a law on the books.

In 1990, the issue of whether to make MLK Day a holiday went before Arizona voters. The NFL had selected Arizona to host the Super Bowl in 1993, but threatened to move the game if the measure did not pass.

It didn’t, and Arizona lost out on potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.

“The NFL pretty much decided that if Arizona was not going to honor Dr. King, then there would be no Super Bowl in Arizona,” said Mario Salas, an associate professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and a civil rights activist for much of his life.

Arizona loses the game

Meanwhile, Texas was in the middle of its own debate over honoring the civil rights leader. For years, activists like Salas had been meeting with lawmakers in Austin and petitioning them to create a state holiday.

“We had a meeting, and we discussed the fact that people were going to Austin every year trying to get a state holiday to no avail," Salas said, referring to Frontline 2000, a civil rights group made up of former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "So, we decided on a different tactic, which was quite radical from the previous tactics."

When Arizona voters rejected the holiday, Texas jumped at the opportunity to bring the Super Bowl to Houston. But if Texas didn't have a holiday honoring King, either, would it get rejected, too? Frontline 2000 decided to use that possibility to its advantage.

"We had talked to the [NFL] Players Association, we talked to [then-]NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and told him we would sue the NFL, we would sue anybody else if they play a Super Bowl in Texas without honoring King," Salas says.

The NFL Players Association agreed to boycott the Super Bowl if Houston's bid to host was selected. Armed with that knowledge, Frontline 2000 returned to the Capitol to get lawmakers to support legislation making MLK Day a state holiday.

Getting the bill over the finish line

Mario Salas and members of Frontline 2000 were invited to the governors mansion in 1991 to see Gov. Ann Richards sign a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday in Texas.
Courtesy of Mario Salas
Mario Salas and members of Frontline 2000 were invited to the governors mansion in 1991 to see Gov. Ann Richards sign a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday in Texas.

Senate Bill 134 had already passed the Texas Senate, but it was being held up in committee in the House.

Salas went back to the Capitol and met with then-Speaker Gib Lewis to tell him Texas' bid to host the Super Bowl would depend on lawmakers' approving the holiday.

“We weren’t in the meeting 15 minutes, and the speaker of the House said to us that bill will be out of that committee in the morning ready for a vote and eventually the governor’s signature,” Salas said.

The bill passed the House in the waning days of the legislative session, and Gov. Ann Richards signed it into law on June 11, 1991.

Why we march

Despite Texas' new recognition of MLK Day, the NFL chose to hold the Super Bowl in California that year. But Texas has celebrated King's legacy ever since, and eventually the rest of the holdout states followed suit.

“Many of us who were pushing for that were involved in the civil rights movement for years and years and years," Salas said. "I was at a very young age. And so this was something that absolutely had to be done to honor a man who gave it all, gave his life, in the war against racism and the war against segregation."

The Rev. King will be honored with parades this month across the country. In Austin, there will be a march Monday starting at the MLK statue on the UT campus and ending with a festival at Huston-Tillotson University.

Salas doesn’t see these events as parades; rather, he sees them as marches — just like the ones leaders like King used to bring attention to the civil rights movement.

“In those days, marching could have meant your life. And that’s something we never need to forget," he said. "Marching now doesn’t so much involve sacrificing your life, but back then it did and that’s the point we cannot forget."

Starting Saturday through Friday, listen to "MLK Remembered" on KUT 90.5 FM. We'll bring you stories to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his impact on Austin and the world.

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Juan Garcia