Jan. 15, 2018 marks the 32nd year that Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been observed. How did the national holiday come about? Who spearheaded efforts to create this federal holiday and what roadblocks did they face?
The efforts began just months after the assassination of the civil rights icon, when Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation seeking to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday. As Time reported, while some states passed their own legislation, the King Memorial Center in Atlanta “sponsored the first annual observance of King’s birthday, in Jan. 1969, almost a decade and a half before it became an official government-sanctioned holiday.”
While King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting a King holiday in 1971, the bill languished in Congress for eight years due to racism and politics, until President Jimmy Carter vowed to support a King holiday. Despite these efforts, Conyers bill was defeated in the House by five votes.
Energized by the president’s support, activists increased their efforts. Coretta Scott King tirelessly testified before legislatures and elective officials, while Stevie Wonder released his 1980 song “Happy Birthday” that celebrated Dr. King and urged a holiday in his honor. Once a petition of 6 million signatures was presented to Congress, it cleared the House in 1983, but still faced some strong opposition in the Senate. In an opposition campaign led primarily by Republican Senators John P. East and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, some attempted to emphasize King’s associations with communists and his alleged sexual dalliances as reasons not to honor him with a federal holiday. Despite these hurdles, the bill finally passed in the Senate and was signed by President Reagan n on Nov. 3rd, to take effect in 1986.
Most states adopted the holiday within a few years, but others held out. National Geographic describes how Arizona didn’t recognize the day until 1992, after losing millions of dollars when the National Football League Super Bowl boycotted the state in protest. Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi opted to take an ironic route and combined the King holiday with one they already had – Robert E. Lee’s birthday on Jan. 19th. The last state to adopt the holiday was New Hampshire in 1999, according to The King Center.
How was MLK Day adopted in your state? Are there other notable Americans who deserve a holiday?