A National Holiday
The effort to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday began immediately after his death. Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to create a national holiday in honor of King’s birthday just four days after his assassination. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as head of the SCLC, argued that such a holiday would not only pay tribute to King himself, but would also honor the achievements of black Americans more broadly: “At no other time during the year does this Nation pause to pay respect to the life and work of a black man.” Others argued that such a holiday would signal the support of Americans of all races both for King’s work in particular and for the Civil Rights Movement in general.
Though Conyers’ bill was unsuccessful, King’s birthday became an important holiday in communities across the country. Many public schools and local governments nationwide closed on the day, and civic groups and institutions celebrated the day with vigils, marches, and speeches. In 1973, Illinois became the first state to create a holiday in observance of King’s birthday, and a number of states soon passed similar legislation. Coretta Scott King founded the King Center in Atlanta in 1968 to continue the work of her late husband, and the organization became a prominent advocate for establishing a national holiday during the 1970s.
Conyers reintroduced legislation in Congress in 1979 for a federal King holiday, and though it garnered more support, the bill still fell five votes short of passing. Opponents raised several arguments against the proposal. Many cited fiscal concerns, arguing that adding another paid government holiday to the calendar was an unnecessary public expense. Others questioned whether King, who never held a public office or served in the military, warranted a public holiday alongside George Washington, the only other American celebrated with a holiday, at the exclusion of other leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Finally, some congressional objections to the proposal centered on King’s criticism of the Vietnam War and his alleged ties to communism.
Despite these reservations, the proposed holiday continued to gain popular support, and the SCLC coordinated a widespread campaign to win congressional votes. In 1981, singer Stevie Wonder released the single, “Happy Birthday,” to draw attention to the cause, and a petition with over six million signatures in support of a King holiday arrived in Washington. Finally, after a hard-fought battle in the Senate, Congress in 1983 passed a bill establishing the third Monday in January as a federal holiday, with its celebration to begin in 1986. After signing the bill into law, President Ronald Reagan remarked, “Each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.” At the same ceremony, Coretta Scott King declared, “This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday.”
Even after it was recognized by the federal government, the holiday remained contested. The decision over whether or not to celebrate the holiday still fell to each state, and the 23 states that had not already established holidays in honor of King before 1986 could decide whether or not to mark the day. In the year 2000, South Carolina became the last state to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 17 years after it became a federal holiday. Today, many Americans view the holiday as a time to honor the legacy of King through community service, in keeping with the emphasis introduced by the King Holiday and Service Act that Congress passed in 1994. The King Center notes that, “Martin Luther King Jr. Day is not only for celebration and remembrance, education and tribute, but above all a day of service.”
In 2011, a monument to King was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington, DC, another tribute to the important legacy of the civil rights leader. President Barack Obama emphasized King’s legacy of cooperation and service for the greater good: “We need more than ever to take heed of Dr. King’s teachings. He calls on us to stand in the other person’s shoes; to see through their eyes; to understand their pain. . . . He also understood that to bring about true and lasting change, there must be the possibility of reconciliation; that any social movement has to channel this tension through the spirit of love and mutuality.”