The History of MLK Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has officially been a federal holiday since 1986, although it took years to be observed in all fifty United States. The road to getting a day dedicated to Dr. King was long and hard. The first attempt at getting the holiday in place was just four days after King’s assassination in 1968. John Conyers, then a Democratic Congressman from Michigan, as well as one of the very few African Americans in Congress, took to the floor to ask for a federal holiday in King’s honor. Although his bill was not passed that day, Conyers, who had been an active member of the civil rights movement for years, refused to give up. For years afterward, he would bring the subject up many times.
The year after King’s death, on his birthday, Jan. 15, 1969, The King Center commenced annual ceremonies honoring him in Atlanta. The organization asked for nationwide recognition and celebration in order to foster support for the holiday. During the 1970s, several states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Illinois, were the first to put statewide King holidays into place, but a failure to act on the national level still remained. 

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter came before Congress to ask for the King Holiday Bill to be put to a vote once again. That November, the bill was overturned by the House of Representatives and the fight for a holiday for King went on. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, became more involved in the struggle. 

Soon after the defeat of the bill, Stevie Wonder released “Happy Birthday,” a song supporting a King holiday. The lyrics describe the ways in which Americans can take pride in celebrating King. The song became a hit and Wonder continued to advocate for the passing of the bill alongside Coretta Scott King. In 1982, Wonder and King delivered a petition with 6 million signatures supporting the holiday to the Speaker of the House. 

Finally, on Nov. 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill marking the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In 1986, the holiday was officially celebrated and observed for the first time, although 17 states had previously set up a King holiday.

Even though the journey took many attempts over 17 long years to achieve the goal, MLK Day was finally official. Even then, it took several more years for the holiday to be recognized all across the country, but the first step was complete. It marked the first federal holiday honoring a national figure who was not a president, as well as the first honoring an African American. Today Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed in all fifty states, although it is in conjunction with holidays recognizing Confederate figures in some states. Nonetheless, it is observed, and that in itself is a thing worth celebrating.