Celebrating Martin Luther King Day

Learn how Martin Luther King Day became a nationally observed holiday.
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The path to acceptance

Celebrating Martin Luther King Day

Every year, federal facilities, schools, and banks across the country observe the third Monday in January as a holiday in memory of the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It took 15 years, millions upon millions of signatures, and the committed efforts of many dedicated people to turn King's birthday into a national holiday.

Along the way, those who sought a formal national observance of Dr. King's contribution to American life were told that what they sought was unprecedented, impossible, too costly, or too radical. In hindsight, it is tempting to conclude that simple racial bias was one of the major reasons some American lawmakers waited a decade and a half to set aside a day of remembrance for the greatest civil rights leader of them all.


Among the reasons that were cited in opposition to the national observance of Martin Luther King day were the following:

  • The campaign for the holiday (which began almost immediately after King's death) was too close to contemporary events, and would not withstand the test of time.
  • The campaign for the holiday (which had continued steadily through the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations) was built around events that were far in the past, and was not necessary given the changes in America that had taken place since King's death.
  • The country had set aside holidays for specific individuals only twice in its history (for George Washington and Christopher Columbus); those in opposition to the new holiday implied that honoring Dr. King could somehow begin a trend toward honoring figures with only narrow, sectarian appeal. In response to this criticism, the comedian Richard Pryor, appearing on the Tonight show, pointed out that African-Americans weren't seeking a day to honor Wilt Chamberlain, but the man who had delivered the “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
  • The holiday was too expensive, given the overtime and paid-time-off expenses associated with any national holiday. To those who made this objection, Senator Robert Dole of Kansas said, “I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political, and social exclusion and discrimination.”
  • The holiday was somehow meant exclusively for African-American people. Those who voiced (or subtly implied) this objection had obviously missed the philosophy of inclusion and participation that guided Dr. King's mission. The notion that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution applies equally to all people and that the Constitution itself is color-blind are not African-American ideas. They are American ideas. The principle that we should each be judged according to the content of our characters and that we should have the opportunity to move toward the highest aspirations we select without facing discrimination or bias are not African-American ideals. They are American ideals.
The Adoption of the King Holiday—a Timeline
April 4, 1968Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
April 8, 1968Rep. John Conyers of Michigan proposes legislation to make King's birthday a national holiday. The sitting Congress ignores the bill.
January 1969Over a thousand auto workers at a Tarrytown, New York, plant take a day off from work to celebrate King's birthday. Suspensions greet 60 of the workers; management threatens many other workers with formal reprisals.
March 1970Six million signatures in support of a national King holiday arrive in Washington. Representative Conyers and Representative Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, begin the process of conducting Congressional hearings.
January 1981Seattle dockworkers are fired shortly after passing out literature in support of a formal King holiday.
1982 and 1983Major marches in support of voting rights and the King legacy continue to place pressure on Congress. Petition drives continue.
August 1983The House of Representatives passes a bill honoring Dr. King's birthday.
October 1983Despite persistent efforts by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the Senate passes the King holiday bill.
November 1983President Reagan signs the measure into law.
January 20, 1986Dr. King's birthday is observed as a federal holiday for the first time.
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