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The History of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day




The decades-long fight for a federally-recognized King holiday began just four days after Dr. King was murdered when Democratic Congressman John Conyers proposed a bill to create a holiday in his honor on April 8, 1968. Congressman Conyers, with the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, reintroduced the bill every year despite Congress' refusal to support it. The House did not vote on the King Holiday Bill until 1979 where it failed to pass by five votes.


Coretta Scott King, one of the world's most influential peace and justice activists, worked to secure the legacy of her husband Dr. King after his assassination. She created the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and campaigned throughout the 1970s and 1980s to build public support for a national King holiday.


Famed singer Stevie Wonder recorded and released "Happy Birthday" in honor of the birth of Dr. King. The hit song garnered massive support for the holiday while Stevie Wonder campaigned for its passage and opened a lobbying office in Washington, D.C. On January 15, 1981, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Diana Ross, and Jesse Jackson stood before a crowd of 100,000 people marching on the National Mall in support of the King holiday. Two more rallies followed in 1982 and 1983.



Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder testified before Congress in February 1982. They presented a petition in support of the holiday signed by six million people to the Speaker of the House. The bill finally passed the House in August 1983 by a vote of 338-90, but faced opposition from a number of Senators, led by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who worked to discredit Dr. King's legacy. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 78-22.


Despite stating that he did not support a holiday to honor Dr. King, President Ronald Regan signed the bill making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federally-recognized holiday on October 20, 1983. The holiday was not officially observed as a federal holiday until 1986 and there is no uniform statewide observance. In fact, Alabama and Mississippi combined Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with Robert E. Lee Day to celebrate the Confederate general's January 19th birthday. All fifty states have recognized the holiday in some form since the year 2000.


President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act on August 23, 1994. The bill shifted the focus of the holiday to a day of service and an opportunity for Americans to give back to their communities.


The King Center is commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 93rd birthday with the theme "It Starts with Me: Shifting Priorities to Create the Beloved Community." Virtual events will be held throughout the month of January for those who are interested in participating.


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