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–by Joanna Hallac with Lauren Borchard

It is nearly the third Monday in January and therefore almost time to once again celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day not only set aside to celebrate the slain leader of the civil rights movement, but also a day that many Americans devote to national service. Although it seems commonplace to most people under the age of 25 that we celebrate this day as a national holiday, it was a long and bumpy road for that day to finally come. As we did with looking at some of the history and debates behind the celebration of Columbus Day back in October, we think it’s worthwhile to reflect a bit on the controversy that this holiday endured on its way to a spot as a national holiday.

John Wilson's bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. displayed in the Capitol (Architect of the Capitol)

As most Americans know, on April 4, 1968, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by a gunman in Memphis, TN as he stepped out of his motel room. Dr. King was in Memphis to march alongside striking sanitation workers prior to kicking off his planned Poor People’s Campaign soon afterward. Just four days after his assassination, Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the first legislation to create a Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday, but Congress chose not to move forward on the legislation. Every year after, Conyers would continue to submit the legislation for consideration, but to no avail. Beginning in 1971, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the group that Dr. King helped found and lead, began joining the effort, along with the recently created Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in Atlanta, to push for a federal holiday commemorating King’s birthday (which was January 15, 1929). In April 1971, the SCLC presented Congress with petitions they had gathered that contained 3 million signatures in support of such a holiday; however, Congress still didn’t take action on the legislation.

In 1973, Illinois became the first state to sign a King Holiday bill into law, with Massachusetts and Connecticut following suit the next year. In 1975, the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled that, in accordance with the NJ state government’s labor contract with NJ State employees, the state must provide a paid holiday in honor of Dr. King. In the fall of 1978, the National Council of Churches called on Congress to pass a holiday to commemorate Dr. King, but still no legislation was moved forward. Coretta Scott King would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as before Joint Hearings of Congress, in support of such legislation before mobilizing a nation-wide campaign for a national holiday through the King Center in 1979. The Conyers bill made it through the committee process but was defeated in the House by just five votes.

In 1980, Stevie Wonder’s hit “Happy Birthday” celebrated King and advocated a holiday in his honor (Wonder was a vocal supporter of the King holiday). Over the next several years, Coretta Scott King’s work with the King Center to establish the holiday included a focus on state and local commemorations as well as new petition drives and additional testimony before Congress. Finally, in August 1983, the House passed the King Holiday Bill by a vote of 338-90; the Senate passed the bill in October, 78-22. On Nov. 3, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill, and beginning in 1986, the third Monday of January was designated the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday.

Passing federal legislation didn’t mean that the holiday was a done deal, however. Battles over the idea continued in various industries and states for at least another 15 years, even as the holiday’s proponents have encouraged Americans to make the holiday a day of service, cooperation, and anti-violence. In 1982, Congress passed a resolution to commission and acquire a marble bust of King (currently displayed in the Capitol rotunda), and in 2004 both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal “in recognition of their contributions to the Nation on behalf of the civil rights movement.”

Do you remember any of the debates over the King holiday, or have a strong opinion about how to commemorate King’s life and work? Let us know in the comments.

Sources consulted:
“Making of the King Holiday: A Chronology” on King Center website
Architect of the Capitol website, page on MLK bust
PUBLIC LAW 108–368—OCT. 25, 2004