PHOENIX — As many as 15,000 people braved freezing weather to march on the Legislature today with petitions demanding that lawmakers re-establish a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. in defiance of Gov. Evan Mecham.
Orange and blue balloons with the words, "Happy Birthday, Martin" bobbed above the interracial crowd, led by U.S. and Arizona flags and a black wreath bearing the legend "The dream is still ours," on the 2 1/2-mile march.
Police estimated the crowd at up to 15,000 as leaders of the march presented lawmakers with petitions they said bore 50,000 signatures backing creation of the state holiday.
"Let's all keep coming back here until we have an Arizona holiday in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.," said former Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who created a state government holiday that Mecham canceled Jan. 12.
Holiday by Proclamation
The King holiday cleared the Senate last year but failed by one vote in the House, prompting Babbitt to declare the holiday by executive proclamation.
Mecham, saying Babbitt acted without authority, kept his campaign promise to rescind the holiday, and urged lawmakers to set a voter referendum on the issue, rather than debate it this year.
"I don't understand the insistence by those who want to honor Dr. King, who insist that everybody do so," Mecham said earlier in the day on NBC's "Today" show.
"I think that any observance, a tribute, an honor, has to be bestowed, not forced. And I don't see the hassle on all this," the Republican governor said, appearing jointly with civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"Gov. Mecham, in a real sense has tried to turn back the hand of time," said Jackson, appearing on the program from Atlanta. "He is trying to be a dream buster, but he will not succeed."
Jackson said, "I hope that Gov. Mecham will see the error of his ways," adding that the nation's governors need to exercise moral leadership on the issue.
An apparently irritated Mecham replied, "I really resent you talking about moral leadership, Jesse. . . . You who want to use pressure and political pressure to make everybody feel guilty if they don't go along with you. You are the one that lacks moral leadership, Jesse, not I."