Black caucus MLK 2023

Members of the Black caucus of the House address a joint session of the General Assembly to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Screenshot courtesy Colorado Channel.

The 2023 version of the annual General Assembly resolution honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. featured several firsts.

Among them, the resolution for the first time recognized the largest Black caucus in legislative history, while the occasion marked the first time the resolution has been done in a joint session of the legislature. 

The Black caucus has a record 11 members in the 2023 General Assembly: seven women in the House and two women and two men in the Senate, all Democrats. While she does not identify as Black, Rep. Iman Jodeh of Aurora is a member and the first Muslim to serve in the legislature. 

The commemoration included a tribute to the two lawmakers who worked for years to make the resolution and accompanying state holiday a reality. That started with then-Rep. Wellington Webb from House District 8, who tried for three years to get the General Assembly to recognize Dr. King through passing the resolution. Those attempts did not succeed. Webb went on to become Denver's first Black mayor. 

Rep. Leslie Herod, who hopes to become the next Democratic state lawmaker representing Denver to become the city's mayor, explained that the resolution succeeded with someone "who was a little more tenacious and convincing, and who followed Wellington Webb." That was his wife, Rep. Wilma Webb, later Denver's first lady.

Rep. Wilma Webb fought for four years to make sure King was acknowledged by the legislature, Herod said. She was denied for three years, received death threats and was removed from her seat on the Joint Budget Committee. Herod later became only the second Black women on the JBC.

The resolution finally passed in her fourth attempt, in 1984.

Webb also was the first to sponsor legislation to create the state holiday that bears King's name. Gov. Dick Lamm signed into law the legislation making King's birth date the state holiday roughly a year after Webb's resolution passed. 

Webbs and Buckner

Former state Reps. Wilma and Wellington Webb (later Denver's First Lady and first Black mayor) with Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora (at right).

"The dream is not yet realized. We still have fight and work to do," Herod added, asking her colleagues to remember King's words so that his legacy is not just one day.

Rep. Scott Bottoms, R-Colorado Springs, spoke about King's life as a pastor. Bottoms, who is also a pastor, said King has been his hero.

Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, spoke at length about the gun violence that took King's life.

"It shocked me as a young girl," she said, adding others took up where King left off.

"You are the legacy and the champions of Martin's dream," she said to her fellow Black caucus members. "We're not trying to get something that no one else has. We want parity, we want fairness ... and we want to do it peacefully and in love."

Voting rights, a cause King championed, was the mantle taken up by Sen. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs. He noted that the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the Voting Rights Act, and that states have taken advantage of it to make it harder for people to vote: eliminating polling locations, reducing voting hours and cutting back on polling stations. Thirty-four new voter suppression laws have been passed, including one that criminalizes people for giving food and water to people standing in voting lines, Exum pointed out. Were King alive today he would be very upset to see that, Exum said.

"We should commit ourselves to protecting" everyone's right to vote and making it as easy as possible, he added. 

Colorado has taken big steps in achieving equity, noted President Pro tem Sen. James Coleman, D-Denver, including recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday. But there is much work to be done: racism and discrimination still exists in the nation, and lawmakers must also work on the underlying symptoms of oppression, Coleman said. 

The House adopted the resolution on a voice vote, but with only 43 co-sponsors out of 65 members (two Democrats were excused and a third Democratic seat is vacant). Minority Leader Mike Lynch, while praising King's legacy and the work of the Webbs, said his caucus had "issue with some of the words of the resolution." He did not elaborate at that time, and no Republican House member signed on as a co-sponsor.

According to Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, the section of the resolution that House Republicans took issue with was what he called "critical race theory."

The resolution stated "[t]hat in light of the rising tide of violence in our state and nation, the legislature commends the Colorado state board of education for their leadership in adding the teaching of Dr. King's legacy and the nonviolent principles to Colorado's seventh grade social studies standards. The legislature also calls upon Colorado public schools to honor the legacy of Dr. King by embracing these new educational standards and actively teaching Dr. King's cause for leadership and nonviolent principles as a response to the forces of hatred, racism, and violence in our society." 

The General Assembly is closed Monday to allow members to participate in local Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorations. 

Gov. Jared Polis will give his fifth State of the State address on Jan. 17. 

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