With the United States celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday this week (his birthday is January 15; we mark the occasion with a holiday and a national “day of service“), I thought I’d “jam” to a song that marked the occasion — and chose Public Enemy’s incendiary 1991 bombtrack “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”
There are any number of great songs from the civil rights era that one could use to mark the occasion (Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” may be my favorite) — but I was curious about Public Enemy’s more recent take because of its specific focus on MLK Day, particularly the state of Arizona’s refusal to recognize the holiday for several years after its creation. I knew from growing up that Arizona had been one of the states that originally rejected the holiday, but I honestly didn’t know if it had ever relented. This is, after all, the state whose governor, Jan Brewer, recently drew heavy criticism for signing into law some of the nation’s strictest anti-immigrant legislation. So I did some digging.
The video to the song provides some visual clues to its historical background. In 1983, Congress officially voted to recognize the third Monday in January as “Martin Luther King Day,” a federal holiday, doing so over the protests of a handful of prominent senators. Arizona’s John McCain notably, counted among the opposition (although no one came close to matching the vigor, extent, or utterly transparent racism of North Carolina’s Jesse Helms in protesting the holiday’s creation). President Ronald Reagan, who also initially opposed the holiday, eventually relented and signed the legislation creating the holiday into law, with the United States finally observing the holiday in 1986; even then, only 27 states and the District of Columbia celebrated the holiday that first year.
Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt seems to have really lit the fuse for the political firestorm that eventually overtook his state on this issue. After the Arizona legislature failed to pass a bill recognizing MLK Day as a holiday in the state, Gov. Babbitt signed an executive order, shall we say, correcting the oversight. That order had a short lifespan; when Babbitt left office in 1987 to run for president (he lost to Bill Clinton*, who later appointed him Secretary of the Interior), his successor, Evan Mecham, made it his first official act to overturn Babbitt’s executive order, repealing the holiday.
* = Funny enough, Sister Souljah provides a spoken word introduction on the track; the same Sister Souljah whose lyrics candidate Bill Clinton would, during the 1992 election, repudiate for their apparent violence – creating what’s now known in politics as a “Sister Souljah Moment.“
Three years later, in 1990, the people of Arizona voted down (by a margin of 17,000 votes) a proposal to recognize the holiday. Gov. Mecham, still an opponent of the holiday, said at the time, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.”
Cue righteous anger at a national level. In 1993, the controversy had reached such a pitch that the NFL, amidst a broad consumer boycott of the state, relocated Super Bowl XXVII — slated that year to be played in Tempe, Arizona’s Sun Devil Stadium — to The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Public Enemy deserves credit for stoking the fire in the intervening years, having released its fourth album, the (even more than usual) politically charged album Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black, which included the single “By The Time I Get To Arizona.”
The song’s title is a play on the 1968 AM gold classic “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” a Johnny Webb-penned song that helped signer Glen Campbell breakthrough to mainstream success. The similarities pretty much end there. Chuck D had, by this point in Public Enemy’s career, reached his apex as a sociopolitical firebrand, unleashing a relentless lyrical assault that — when coupled with intense musical production by the Imperial Grand Ministers of Funk — absolutely scorches the breadth and depth of Apocalypse.
Mecham draws Chuck’s focus throughout the song in passages tinged with violence: “Until we get some land / Call me the trigger man / Looki lookin’ for the governor” leads into “I urinated on the state / While I was kickin’ this song / Yeah, he appear to be fair / The cracker over there / He try to keep it yesteryear / The good ol’ days / The same ol’ ways / That kept us dyin’ / Yes, you me myself and I’ndeed / What he need is a nosebleed.”
The “trigger man” line is perhaps the epicenter of the song’s controversy. Chuck leads into it with a common (if oblique) reference to “40 acres and a mule,” tying Arizona’s actions to a long line of injustices and broken promises made to African Americans. He then immediately toasts himself as the agent of retribution against Gov. Mecham, who he explicitly calls out as a thoroughgoing racist.
PE then brought even more noise. The video for “By The Time I Get To Arizona” depicts the group and the S1W (the Security of the First World drill team that backs up Public Enemy with military-themed dance moves during live shows and in videos) staging an assassination of the governor, contrasted against footage of Martin Luther King’s assassination. These scenes tie the events of the past and the events of the present together in one fell “by any means necessary” swoop — and, ironically, threaten to upend King’s message of nonviolent protest. The effect is to amplify America’s polite — and, to PE’s ears, easily ignored — conversation about race matters into something more full-throated, impossible to dismiss.
Trigger more righteous anger — this time, much of it directed at Public Enemy. Spin Magazine, in its excellent look back at the song on its 20th anniversary, notes that, “P.E. was reviled throughout the mainstream media, including being scrutinized on an episode of Nightline, where columnist Clarence Page said the video was ‘the exact opposite of the message that Martin Luther King died for.'”
This did little to slow the arc of history, however. Later in 1993, following the consumer boycott and the Super Bowl relocation, the voters of Arizona finally relented during a referendum and officially recognized MLK Day as a holiday.
Chuck D and Public Enemy, fight on, however. In 2011, to protest Arizona’s viciously anti-immigrant SB 1070, the group re-recorded “By The Time I Get To Arizona” with DJ Spooky (which you can download for free here). Chuck D also penned a brief but barbed editorial in the Huffington Post decrying the legislation, and created his first-ever piece of original visual art work protesting the law:
And this year, Public Enemy marked Martin Luther King Day by leading a free live concert on the streets of downtown Los Angeles’s “Skid Row” district — site of the largest homeless population in the United States — in an effort to “Catch the Thrown” (to borrow Chuck’s own phrasing from Twitter, where he again cleverly plays title games, this time with Kanye West & Jay-Z’s celebration of material excess, Watch The Throne). Ya don’t stop, the man says.
Thanks, Chuck, for making history live.
Note: I wrote this late on January 17 / early January 18, 2012 — right about the time Wikipedia went dark to protest SOPA / PIPA, thereby depriving me of a handy research tool (not that I mind). My thanks, then, to Nadra Kareem Nittle, the author’s of About.com’s “Race Relations” article on the history of MLK Day, as well as Arizona public television’s KAET, which maintains an informative oral history of the events surrounding the state’s repeal of the holiday, for providing alternate sources of information.