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'My Duty': Former State Rep. Wilma Webb's Journey To Create MLK Day In Colorado

Stephanie Daniel
Wilma Webb served six terms in Colorado's House of Representatives, and was the person reposible for getting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. honored in the state.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will be celebrated on Jan. 20 this year. Although the federal holiday is an annual tradition across the country, it wasn't always that way.

It took several attempts to get King honored in Colorado, and the person responsible for that is Wilma Webb. She served in Colorado's House of Representatives for six terms and is also the former first lady of Denver — her husband, Wellington Webb, was the city's mayor from 1991 to 2003.

KUNC's Stephanie Daniel spoke to Webb about her work in Colorado politics and why she brought Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to the state.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Daniel: Why did you feel it was important to have a day set aside to celebrate Dr. King?

Wilma Webb: As most people know by now, Dr. King was one of the greatest Americans that we have ever had, that has ever lived. He was one of the most unanimously loving and loved humanitarians across the world, so what he was doing was all good for making America better. He actually changed the direction of our country, which was going in a poor direction, a bad direction where we had segregation, where we had people that were unemployed and underemployed who couldn't get jobs because of discrimination. He lived his life and he gave his life to make those corrections as best as he could.

I was particularly moved by the 1964 and the 1965 Civil Rights Acts. One was for accommodations and for doing away with segregation and the other was for everyone to have a right to vote. And so that was at the highlight of what he was doing. But further than that, when I was a young girl, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Denver. He was the guest speaker at our church, New Hope Baptist Church for me at that time. Then Mrs. Coretta Scott King also came here and her first official speech to an audience, her first public speech, was done here in Denver, Colorado at a New Hope Baptist Church. I was the organist and she was the guest speaker and we were friends ever since then. My relationship with the King family goes really far back.

I felt that it was my duty and my responsibility to try to do whatever I could in terms of their values, in terms of their principles, in terms of their humanitarian efforts. I thought the least that I could do was to have him recognized not only for what he did, but for all of the contributions of particularly African American people at that time. But as you know, he was a person who was for making everybody better.

Talk a little bit about what it took to get the bill passed.

The efforts began in 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and there were all kinds of tributes and resolutions giving him respect and honor, but there were very few efforts to make his birthday an official holiday. At the time, state representative Wellington Webb was the first one to carry legislation in Colorado and he attempted three times and on the third time he did get it out of the House of Representatives, but it died in the Senate.

When I came in 1980 I carried bills in 1981, '82, '83 and '84 and each time it was a really quite an ordeal in terms of educating the elected officials, in terms of the negative thoughts about Dr. King, such as his being accused of being a communist, which he was not. In terms of people who were elected and promising to vote for it and they did not vote for it. In terms of after it was adopted.

At the time before it was adopted, I was a member of the Joint Budget Committee, which is the most powerful committee because it combines both the House and the Senate to write the state's budget and the speaker at that time was not a supporter. He was an opponent of Dr. King's and he would not reappoint me to that committee. I had to go to court to be able to take my seat on the Joint Budget Committee. So those were some of the things that happened, but I have to write a book to share everything. But the good thing is that we have this holiday.

Talk a little bit about the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial.

We're very proud of this Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial monument because of what it means, first of all. Then second of all, for whose shoulders he stood on and for his shoulders and their shoulders and the predecessors' shoulders that we all stand on today. If you'll notice the tablets surrounding the sculpture, they give the history of African Americans from the beginning of slavery on up until the assassination of Dr. King. They also have his remarkable, untouched quotations that he used throughout his life to improve humankind. He was a humanitarian and those are irrefutably wise and they still stand today.

Credit Stephanie Daniel / KUNC
The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in City Park, Denver.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day there is a Marade here in Denver. What is the Marade?

Webb: In 1985 when we were meeting as the commission for the holiday, since we had the holiday, we said, 'What are we going to do with it?' We were meeting to establish and create activities and also the legacy of Dr. King, that would be reflective of him. We created our six days of activities to include every community in Colorado and we were talking about, 'What should we do on Martin Luther King Day?' So, I said, 'Well, we have to have a march. We have to have a march.'

Then we took it a step further because march implies that you have a purpose, that there is a remedy and the remedy is being denied and it's not being acknowledged even though it's right. We said, 'Well, we have to celebrate the celebration of the abolishment of slavery, all of the efforts of the civil rights movement, the march from Selma to Montgomery, all of the people who have fought and who have worked on making it possible for all people to be able to vote. So, we have to celebrate that those things have happened.'

That's when I came up with the term Marade and it got adopted. It's everywhere now, the Martin Marade, and it is to always address the issues that need to be corrected and made right. Always to celebrate where we've come from as a nation.

You've created quite a legacy from your Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bill. What do you think when you see all of that?

I'm happy for what has happened and glad and grateful for what has happened. I still think, just like Dr. King said, 'I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land.' I feel like we're still not there yet, we're not there yet. The dream hasn't been realized. We're not there yet and I keep working for us to be there and I think other people do.

I think they look to this for inspiration because Dr. King was a humble person, he wasn't a wealthy person. He wasn't a highly elected official like a U.S. senator or a president or anything, he was one of the people. It gives people hope because everything that he did for people has made America better. He changed the direction of America. He did.

Wilma Webb is a former Colorado state representative responsible for establishing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday in the state before it was celebrated nationally.

The annual Marade to celebrate Dr. King in Denver starts Monday, Jan.  20 at 9:30 a.m. at City Park. There will also be events held in Greeley, Fort Collins, Loveland and BoulderNational parks will also have free admission on Monday.

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