Briefing

The history of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The decades-long journey to honor Dr. King with a fully-recognized federal holiday

On Monday, Jan. 16, Americans observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy as a Civil Rights movement leader and his lifelong dedication to community service. While the whole nation now observes the holiday, the path to designating a day to celebrate King took 15 years of persistence by his supporters.

Here's everything you need to know about how Martin Luther King Jr. Day came to be: 

When was the idea for Martin Luther King Jr. Day introduced?

Democratic Michigan Rep. John Conyers was the first to introduce a bill to recognize King's birthday as a national holiday on Apr. 8, 1968, just four days after he was assassinated, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Congress ignored his initial pleas to pay homage to King's legacy with a holiday, but Conyers was undeterred. He continued to be a prominent advocate for the proposed holiday and reintroduced the legislation every year with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which Conyers co-founded. A 2009 report in Time magazine said that the King Memorial Center in Atlanta, which was founded around the same time, sponsored the first annual observance of King's birthday, Jan. 15, in 1969. 

Conyers and the CBC were not the only groups working on getting the holiday recognized by Congress. Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) after King was killed, collected letters of support and directed a drive to collect signed petitions supporting the idea. By April 1971, the SCLC collected over 3 million signatures, and Abernathy led a march on Washington to deliver the signatures and letters to Congress.

In one letter archived in the records of the House Judiciary Committee, Rosemary Ryan of Kansas City, Kansas, wrote, "I want Dr. King's birthday declared a national holiday to remind the whole world over, for centuries to come, that Martin Luther King Jr. suffered and sacrificed his life so that all mankind may one day, live together in brotherhood."

The bill finally came to a vote in the House in 1979 on what would have been King's 50th birthday. Still, despite having a petition with 300,000 signatures in support, support from President Jimmy Carter, and testimonials from King's widow, Coretta Scott King, the bill was blocked by five votes in the House, per the NMAAHC. Republican Missouri Rep. Gene Taylor helmed the bill's opposition, citing the costs of a new federal holiday and the tradition of excluding private citizens from being recognized with a public holiday. 

How did it become an official national holiday?

Despite failing to pass in the House, public support for the bill continued to grow. Singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder became a vocal advocate for the bill and worked hard to spread the message. His 1980 album "Hotter Than July" featured the song "Happy Birthday," an ode to King's vision and a rallying cry for a national day of recognition. 

The lyrics include, "I just never understood / How a man who died for good / Could not have a day that would / Be set aside for his recognition ... in peace, our hearts will sing / Thanks to Martin Luther King." Wonder made regular appearances alongside Coretta Scott King at rallies and ended a four-month tour with a benefit concert on the National Mall 18 years after King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech there.  

The bill finally made it to the House floor again in 1983, fifteen years after King's assassination. The CBC, Coretta Scott King, and Wonder gathered six million signatures for a petition to honor King with a federal holiday. The House passed the legislation with a final vote of 338 to 90 but was met with opposition in the Senate. Republican North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms led the charge to dismiss the bill, arguing that any person against the holiday would be labeled a racist. Helms warned his fellow senators against being pressured into elevating King "the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach that of Washington's," per Time.  

In Oct. 1983, Helms submitted a 300-page report containing allegations that King was connected to communists, which was dismissed by Democratic New York Rep. Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a "packet of filth." Helms requested to have FBI surveillance tapes of King unsealed, but District Judge John Lewis Smith Jr. denied the request. The bill was successfully passed in the Senate after a two-day debate, and President Ronald Regan signed it into law on Nov. 2, 1983. 

"I would have preferred a non-holiday in King's honor but since they seem bent on making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I will sign that legislation when it reaches my desk," Reagan said at the time, per the NMAAHC. 

The first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated on Jan. 20, 1986, but it took years for all fifty states to observe it. According to the History Channel, several southern states combined the day with celebrations of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, born on Jan. 19. It wasn't until 2000 that all 50 states observed the holiday. 

When did it become a national day of service?

The holiday became recognized as a national day of service after President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act into law on August 23, 1994. The bill was co-authored by Rep. John Lewis and former Pennsylvania Senator Harris Wofford, inspired by King's dedication to service. They proposed the legislation to encourage Americans to make the holiday "a day on, not a day off" by finding a common cause to give back to their communities. AmeriCorps has nationally coordinated the day of service since its inception in 1994. 

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