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The History Behind Martin Luther King Jr. Day

By Lance Trebesch January 20, 2014

How the Civil Rights Leader’s Birthday Became a National Holiday

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has been a staple in American society for years; so much so that people probably now take the day for granted. However, the day isn’t just a federal and national holiday that is great just because people can stay off work and have a long weekend; it’s a day to honor one of America’s greatest leaders and civil rights fighters. The day gives thanks to everything King has done to help America inch closer to becoming a more perfect union. One way to honor his memory is to understand how the holiday was created in the first place.

The fight for the national observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday was one filled with setbacks and frustration, but it was a fight that was eventually won. According to TIME Magazine, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. put forth legislation proposing King’s birthday as a new national holiday. In 1970, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also supported the measure by supplying Congress with a petition citing more than 3 million signatures in support of a King holiday.

However, the bill was tossed about in Congress for the next eight years until President Jimmy Carter came to the White House. Carter said he supported a national holiday dedicated to King. Thanks to Carter’s support of the bill, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, testified before joint hearings of Congress and also organized a countrywide lobby in support of the bill. However, the bill was once again defeated in Congress. The 1980s finally saw the birth of the King holiday; the sway in support came from Stevie Wonder, who released the song “Happy Birthday” and, along with Coretta, sent a second petition containing 6 million signatures, to Congress.  According to Wikipedia, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in 1983, with the first observance being three years later.

Interestingly enough, King’s birthday was celebrated long before it actually became a national holiday. According to TIME, the King Memorial Center in Atlanta held the first annual observance of the civil right leader’s birthday in 1969. Another fact that might surprise you is how it was only recently that all 50 states officially observed the holiday. According to Wikipedia, all 50 states officially celebrated the holiday without using alternate titles or resistance in 2000.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is a day that we should all use as reflection. We should all ask ourselves how we can help make America better, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.