It would take 15 years and countless protests, marches, and introduction into every legislative session from 1968 to 1983, before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday would become a national holiday.
Prior to 1983, there had been multiple attempts following his assassination to have a holiday created in King’s honor. Representative John Conyers introduced a bill for a federally recognized King holiday in from 1968 to 1979. When a vote was held, that would’ve created a holiday on the third Monday in January, it failed to receive two-thirds support.
Singer Stevie Wonder got involved, and he joined forces with Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to lobby for this cause. U.S. labor unions, entertainers, politicians, and countless citizens eventually added their names to a petition of over 5 million people.
Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while there to lead a strike by city sanitary workers. Labor unions across the country identified with him and in 1969, the year following King’s assassination, workers at General Motors refused to work on his birthday. Causing the move to make his birthday a national holiday pick up steam. Gradually, across the country, workers began to strike and refused to work.
Meanwhile, Congress still wouldn’t pass the bill and it stalled for over 15 years while opponents used filibustering and character attacks that allowed the bill to languish. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday, but it wouldn’t get national recognition until January,1986.
Dr. King’s supporters never tired of pursuing this distinction for a great man who called himself “a drum major” for civil rights. By 2000, all 50 states had made Dr. King’s birthday a state government holiday.
“Happy Birthday” is a popular song Stevie Wonder wrote as a tribute to Martin Luther King’s life and in celebration of his national day.
How do you honor Dr. King’s birthday?
Do you stop and discuss the significance of the day with others, or is it just a day off work?
In 1994, the King Holiday and Service Act transformed Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day into a day dedicated to volunteer service in honor of King’s legacy. To learn about volunteer services in your community, visit https://www.americorps.gov/blogs/2022-01-13/heres-whats-happening-mlk-day-around-country