How Did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday Become a Federal Holiday?

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday took 32 years to become a holiday.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, celebrated in between New Year’s Day and Washington’s birthday, is one of just ten federal holidays. Many of us think of it as just another day off of work or school without realizing the contentious debate surrounding this holiday honoring one of the most famous civil rights leaders in American history. To this day, the debate rages on about how Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy should be celebrated and remembered.

Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. A precocious and intelligent student, King was accepted to Morehouse University at age 15. He graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and then went on to the seminary, feeling that he was called to follow in the footsteps of his Baptist reverend father. In 1954 while finishing the dissertation for his PhD in systematic theology, Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Montgomery, Alabama to be the pastor at a local Baptist church. There, he became increasingly active in local protests against local Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation based on race. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery bus, King led a year-long boycott against the city’s buses. This incident in particular helped him gain national notoriety and made him a central figure of the growing Civil Rights movement.

King believed in nonviolent opposition and went on to organize millions of people to protest against racial segregation and oppression around the country. King was instrumental in the organization of the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech:

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

King was routinely threatened with violence and unfortunately, some of those threats were carried out. In 1956, his home was bombed but luckily no injuries resulted from that incident.  In March of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to support sanitation workers who were on strike over unequal pay. On April 4th, King was shot on the balcony of his motel by James Earl Ray. He died an hour later at the age of 39. President Lyndon B. Johnson announced a national day of mourning almost immediately, but it took many years before his birthday would be declared a federal holiday.

Who promoted the idea of making MLK Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday?

Michigan congressman John Conyers Jr. was the first to introduce legislation to make King’s birthday a federal holiday, which he did merely four days after King’s assassination. The bill failed to gain support and stagnated in Congress for nearly 15 years. Conyers Jr. reintroduced the bill multiple times in hope that it would have more support, but each time it faced either apathy or staunch opposition from other legislators. President Jimmy Carter, who hailed from Georgia, was particularly interested in making King’s birthday a holiday. Carter’s support caused King’s widow, Coretta, to redouble her efforts in making a holiday to honor her late husband. In 1979, Mrs. King testified in front of Congress in support of Conyer Jr.’s reintroduced bill but the bill failed to pass in the House of Representatives, lacking just five votes. At this point, the idea of celebrating King’s birthday as a national holiday had gained traction among the general public. Stevie Wonder even released a song to promote awareness of the matter- a 1981 single titled “Happy Birthday.” In 1983, as a result of overwhelming interest drummed up by demonstrations and marches across the country, Congress passed the King Holiday Bill and President Reagan signed it into law. The bill established that the third Monday of January would be a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Who opposed the holiday?

In short, many opposed (and still oppose) the idea of a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. In 1983, senators such as Jesse Helms and John Porter East contended that King was a communist that promoted “action-oriented Marxism” and was thus undeserving of being honored with a federal holiday. Other senators opposed it on the basis that it was too costly to have another paid holiday for employees of the federal government, to which then-senator Bob Dole replied, “Since when did a dollar sign take its place atop our moral code?”

Although MLK Day was made an official federal holiday in 1983, this did not mean that it would automatically be a holiday at the state level of government. Each state had the option of passing (or not passing) a bill to make the holiday one for state government, too. Most state legislators gradually enacted such bills- the last one being South Carolina whose Martin Luther King Jr. Day bill passed in 2000. Nevertheless, in order to ensure the passage of such bills some state legislators had to combine the commemoration of King’s birthday with other holidays or remembrances. For instance, in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Virginia, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed alongside Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Needless to say, that holiday in particular is an odd and historically dissonant pair of birthdays.

All in all, the process of establishing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday was fraught with political maneuvering and debate. Despite the arguments over whether his actions warrant a federal holiday, his legacy of nonviolent protest for the sake of freedom and brotherhood lives on. Whether you spend your Monday working or enjoying your time off, take a moment to reflect on King’s dream of racial equality and freedom that he and so many others fought for. Then after that, go earn the I Have a Dream badge on Sporcle.