History Made Every Day™

The History of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Monday, January 15, 1968. It was the 39th birthday of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

An hour after breakfasting with his family, he was at work in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, organizing his Poor People's Campaign he planned to stage later that year.

At noon, aides brought him a birthday cake, teasing him that he was "so busy you forgot to celebrate your own birthday." After the brief observance, King was back at work that afternoon, working on strategies to oppose the Vietnam War.

It would turn out to be King's final birthday. A mere 80 days later, he would be gunned down while standing on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

As word spread about King's assassination, a wave of riots broke out across the nation. But his friends and admirers were already beginning to dream of a more constructive way to honor his legacy of social justice.

On April 8, 1968, just four days after the assassination (and the day before King's funeral), U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced legislation to create a federal holiday for King's birthday.

Despite the emotion of the moment, the struggle to create a federal holiday for King would have to go down a long and difficult road. It would take all the drive and talent that fueled the civil rights movement itself to succeed.

Over the years, opponents and critics found plenty of reasons to reject the idea. First, they said, there were already too many federal holidays (nine) and a tenth would cost too much (estimated at $18 million).

They also asked why put Dr. King above other famous people? Except for Christmas (which honors the birth of Jesus Christ), Washington's Birthday (popularly known as Presidents Day) and Columbus Day (which honors Christopher Columbus, one of the first Europeans to explore the Americas), no other federal holiday honors a single individual, not even Lincoln or Jefferson. And would King's legacy stand the test of time?

In addition, just about every activist group would like to commemorate a day as a federal holiday. For example, feminists want to honor Susan B. Anthony's birthday on Feb. 15. And tree lovers and environmentalists make a case for Arbor Day.

Critics also publicly claimed King had ties to communists and others on the radical left. Still others branded him an outright communist.

Not surprisingly, the bill went nowhere.

But supporters of the holiday dug in for a long fight. In 1969, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, held a birthday rally at the new King Center Atlanta.

Among the first groups to respond to the idea were labor unions, whose members looked upon King as a hero of the working class.

On King's first birthday after the assassination, 60 automotive workers in North Tarrytown, N.Y., were threatened with suspension when they stayed home for the day. But General Motors backed down after more than 1,200 walked off the job a few days later.

Then, a few thousand New York City hospital workers who went on strike that fall returned only after managers agreed to, among other things, a paid holiday on King's birthday. Other unions followed suit in the coming years.

In 1970, Conyers with help from U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a Democrat from New York, submitted six million signatures to Congress in support of a hearing to study the holiday issue. Conyers and Chisholm also continued to resubmit the legislation during each congressional session.

Some state lawmakers joined the cause. In 1970, California passed legislation making it a school holiday. And in 1973, Illinois became the first state to pass a statewide King Holiday bill.

As labor unions weakened in the late 1970s, the King center launched an ambitious campaign to generate popular and corporate support for King Day.

Superstar musician Stevie Wonder joined the cause, dedicating the hit song Happy Birthday (1980) to the King Holiday campaign. Major corporations such as Coca-Cola and the Miller Brewing Company also signed up.

In 1982, Wonder and Mrs. King presented six million signatures in support of the holiday to U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neil. Mass marches in 1982 for voting rights and 1983's celebrations surrounding the 20th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech also contributed to the cause.

As word spread about King's assassination, a wave of riots broke out across the nation. But his friends and admirers were already beginning to dream of a more constructive way to honor his legacy of social justice.

But there were still obstacles. The country was in a conservative mood. Voters had elected Republican Ronald Reagan as president and he opposed the bill. And U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, a conservative Republican from North Carolina who was facing a tough re-election bid in 1984, was determined to filibuster. And in doing so, he was all too happy to stir up the unproven charge that King was a Communist.

In the end, a simple compromise helped overcome the final opposition. Lawmakers decided to move the holiday from Jan. 15 (King's actual birthday), which was considered too close to Christmas and New Year's, to the third Monday in January.

The bill passed the U.S. House on Aug. 2, 1983 by a 338-90 vote. The Senate approved it 78-22 on Oct. 19. The margins were veto proof, so Reagan had no choice to sign it into law on on November 3, 1983. Afterwards, Reagan was asked whether he thought there was any merit to Helms' Communist charge against King.

"We'll know in about thirty-five years." Reagan answered, referring to the voluminous FBI surveillance tapes on King that a court had ordered sealed until 2027.

The new King federal holiday would be observed for the first time on January 20, 1986. But a number of states continued to resist the idea. It took another 13 years, until 1999, for all 50 states to adopt it.

But for King's supporters, the dream is still not fully realized. Some large corporations observe the holiday, but many small private companies, small shops, restaurants and grocery stores tend to remain open.

In 2007, 33% of employers gave employees the day off, according to a survey by the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. That was up from 31% the year before and more than double the 14% for first holiday in 1986.

What would King have thought about the battle to celebrate his birth and legacy? No one knows, of course. But when it came to his life and death, he was rather modest. At his funeral, his famous "Drum Major" sermon (from Feb. 4, 1968) was played. In it, he requested that no mention of his awards and honors be made at his funeral, but that it be said he tried to "feed the hungry," clothe the naked," "be right on the (Vietnam) war question," and "love and serve humanity."

Happy birthday indeed!