Story submitted by Jonathan Tease for PhxSoul.com
Dr. Warren Stewart, Sr. is the senior pastor at First Institutional Baptist Church (FIBC) in downtown Phoenix.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Dr. Stewart leveraged his connection to the community to help lead and organize several civil rights efforts and quickly became an influential figure in the struggle to have the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday recognized in Arizona.
In the years following the legislative battle, members of the community have traditionally gathered just a few blocks from FIBC’s campus to march commemorating the life, legacy, and tremendous sacrifices Dr. King made as he fought for American civil rights. Each year it is a powerful sight to see the streets full of so many different people from different backgrounds gathered in solidarity. However, this was not always the case.
For years in the 1980s, the King holiday was presented to the state legislature and was defeated repeatedly. Finally, in the spring of 1986, Governor Bruce Babbitt signed an executive order declaring the King holiday from the pulpit at First Institutional Baptist Church.
The following year, the executive order was contested by Governor Evan Mecham who made it one of his campaign pledges to rescind the King holiday. He succeeded in removing it once he came into office causing an uproar in the state and across in the nation.
The backlash was so severe that the legendary music icon, Stevie Wonder, boycotted Arizona which influenced several other entertainers and organizations including the NFL to follow suit due to the possible backlash of supporting the state. The 1993 Super Bowl was moved from Tempe to Pasadena, CA as a result of the controversy.
“We started a broad-based coalition to fight for the legislators to finally pass it,” Pastor Stewart reminisces. “They tried it in 1989 but it was overturned by referendum by its opposition. Then it was put on the ballot again in 1990 and again It was defeated. So we tried one more time and finally organized victory together by an overwhelming vote in 1992. We are the only state in the nation to vote on a King holiday.”
While it may be hard to grasp why it took so many attempts to fight for a holiday the rest of the country had been observing since 1986, the problem, as Dr. Stewart recalls, was that the percentage of African Americans living in Arizona at the time in the 80s was barely 3 percent.
“A lot of the non-Blacks, felt like Dr. King’s holiday was a Black holiday and felt that a state holiday was not needed for only 3 percent of the population. So we had to educate them and move them from seeing it as a Black holiday to seeing it as an American holiday.
“What George Washington was in the 18th century; what Abraham Lincoln was in the 19th century; Martin Luther King was in the 20th century. He was causing this country to live out its truth that all people are created equal,” Stewart continued.
Community events and public demonstrations such as yesterday’s MLK March and festival are great for bringing attention to the causes and issues at hand; however, the effort doesn’t end there.
According to Dr. Stewart, the key is to take the next step from being advocates to taking action.
“We must move from symbol to substance,” Dr. Stewart claims. “The Martin Luther King holiday was about creating a symbol. We’ve got the symbol now, but now the substance is still battling inequity in public education, economic development, Blacks die at a higher rate of all diseases than any other race, criminal justice reform, immigration issues. There’s still so much to fight for.”
For those who want to get involved, there are several institutions to join that are making a difference. Naturally, Dr. Stewart points to the Black church.
“Most Black churches in Arizona are about what I called Jesus and justice,” he professes. Other groups include the NAACP and Greater Phoenix Urban League. Additionally, joining different fraternities and sororities are also an option as they are all involved in the community.
The tenacity in which Dr. Stewart fought to convince the state to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is well documented and reminds us how vigilant and committed one must be to the battle for equality. Ironically his efforts also serve as a reminder of that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Video with Dr. Warren Stewart – MLK March 2020
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Jonathan Tease is a storytelling expert turned real estate agent. He is on a mission to help build communities through homeownership at Tease Realty Group and is passionate about connecting with business owners, community leaders, and being a man of the people.