Black History Highlight: Wilma Webb’s fight for MLK Day

DENVER -- Throughout February, FOX31 and Channel 2 will celebrate the contributions African-Americans have made to the state of Colorado with a special series called Black History Highlights.

So many prominent men stand at podiums and parades with leading ladies by their side. Many of these women are often just as accomplished -- if not more so -- than the men they are standing beside. For this Black History Highlight, we sat down with Wilma Webb, the wife of Denver’s first black mayor, Wellington Webb. Wilma has a story that’s all her own.

Every year, America celebrates the life of Martin Luther King Jr. on a Monday around his birthday.

Whether you honor King’s legacy or just take the day for yourself, Coloradans should know that Wilma Webb is a big reason why we get the day off. Wilma Webb served Colorado’s District 8 as a representative in the State Legislature for 13 years.

“I didn’t want anymore for Dr. King’s birthday or any less than any other holiday,” Webb said.

For decades, there was a movement in Washington, D.C. trying to get Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday recognized as a national holiday. In Colorado, then-Rep. Webb was the catalyst for the campaign at the state level.

“We needed to adopt it on a statewide basis as well as on a national basis,” Webb said.

Her efforts started in 1981, one of many years Webb would sponsor a bill at the Colorado Capitol to get MLK Day on the books.

“I had to attempt it four different times, four different years," Webb said.

For years, legislators from both parties refused to moved the bill forward. At times, amendments were placed on the proposed legislation to make its passing even more difficult.

“The amendment was placed on the bill by the opposition to say if Dr. King was such a person and deserving of a holiday, then let the people vote for it. Now, they knew what would happen if that bill was placed out in the public. Colorado only had a 4-percent population of black people, and there would’ve been all kinds of dismay,” Webb said.

She added that people argued there would be calls for holidays honoring other people if MLK Day was recognized.

In 1984, the bill was adopted and became law in Colorado. The same year, President Ronald Reagan made it a national holiday.

“I felt like it was deserving. I felt that it was a great day for Colorado,” Webb said.

The King family even gave Wilma a pin to celebrate her accomplishment. It’s a pin she still wears today.

“I guard it," Webb said.

Webb’s work wasn’t done yet.

“Mrs. Webb created the word Marade. The ‘m’ comes from the word march, which means to demonstrate -- which means to protest peacefully -- and ‘arade’ which means to celebrate, to think of the leaps and bounds we have made and to recognize that there are still leaps and bounds that need to be made,” said Vern Howard, the chairman of the Dr. MLK Jr. Colorado Holiday Commission.

To this day, Webb is applauded for her work.

“Wilma, we owe this day to you,” State Rep. Leslie Herod said while Webb was visiting the Capitol.

“Most people don’t know how hard of a fight she fought to make sure that holiday was a reality,” Herod said. “I’m so honored to be able to sit in the seat that she sat in. As an African-American female representing House District 8, it’s not lost on me that she was the first African-American female to hold this seat.”

Webb was the first to do a lot of things, but the MLK holiday will always be close to her heart.

“His total message... it’s still just as good today as it was when he was alive," Webb said.

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