How Martin Luther King Jr. Day Became a Federal Holiday

Martin Luther King on the tarmac in London after deplaning in October 1961

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On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday effective Jan. 20, 1986. As a result, Americans commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday on the third Monday in January, but few are aware of the history of the long battle to convince Congress to establish this holiday.

John Conyers

Congressman John Conyers, an African American Democrat from Michigan, spearheaded the movement to establish Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Conyers worked in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, was elected to Congress in 1964, and championed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Four days after King's assassination in 1968, Conyers introduced a bill that would make January 15 a federal holiday in King's honor. Congress was unmoved by his efforts, and though he kept reviving the bill, it kept failing.

In 1970, Conyers convinced New York's governor and New York City's mayor to commemorate King's birthday, a move that the city of St. Louis emulated in 1971. Other localities followed, but it was not until the 1980s that Congress acted on Conyers' bill. By this time, the congressman had enlisted the help of popular singer Stevie Wonder, who released the song "Happy Birthday" for King in 1981. Conyers also organized marches in support of the holiday in 1982 and 1983.

Congressional Battles

Conyers finally succeeded when he reintroduced the bill in 1983. But even then, support was not unanimous. In the House of Representatives, William Dannemeyer, a California Republican, led opposition to the bill. He argued that it was too expensive to create a federal holiday, estimating that it would cost $225 million annually in lost productivity. Reagan's administration concurred with Dannemeyer, but the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 for and 90 against.

When the bill reached the Senate, the arguments opposing the bill were less grounded in economics, relying more on outright racism. Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Democrat, filibustered against the bill, demanding the FBI to release its files on King and asserting that King was a Communist who did not deserve the honor of a holiday. The FBI investigated King throughout the late 1950s and 1960s at the behest of its chief, J. Edgar Hoover, had tried intimidation tactics against the civil rights leader, and sent him a note in 1965 suggesting he kill himself to avoid embarrassing personal revelations hitting the media.

Rejecting Baseless Accusations

King, of course, was not a Communist and broke no federal laws, but by challenging the status quo, King and the civil rights movement discomfited the Washington establishment. Charges of communism were a popular way to discredit people who dared speak truth to power during the '50s and '60s, and King's opponents made liberal use of the tactic. Helms tried to revive that tactic, and Reagan defended King.

When a reporter asked about the communism accusations, the president said that Americans would find out in around 35 years, the length of time until FBI materials are declassified. Reagan later apologized, though a federal judge blocked the release of King's FBI files. Conservatives in the Senate tried to change the name of the bill to "National Civil Rights Day," but failed. The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 78 for and 22 against. Reagan capitulated, signing the bill into law.

The First Martin Luther King Jr. Day

In 1986, Coretta Scott King chaired the committee responsible for creating the first celebration of her husband's birthday. Though she was disappointed at not receiving more support from Reagan's administration, her efforts resulted in over a week of commemorations leading up to the holiday, from Jan. 11 to Jan. 20, 1986. Cities like Atlanta held tribute events, and Washington, D.C. dedicated a bust of King.

Reagan's proclamation on Jan. 18, 1986 explained the reason for the holiday:

"This year marks the first observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday. It is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded... He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood."

It required a 15-year-long fight, but Conyers and his supporters successfully won King national recognition for his service to country and humanity. Although some southern states protested the new holiday by commemorating the Confederacy on the same day, by the '90s, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established everywhere in the U.S.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Campbell, Bebe Moore. “A National Holiday for King.” Black Enterprise, Jan. 1984, p. 21.
  • Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Vintage, 1988.
  • Nazel, Joseph. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holloway House, 1991.
  • Reagan, Ronald. “Proclamation 5431 -- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 1986.” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, 18 Jan. 1986.
  • Smitherman, Geneva. Word From the Mother: Language and African Americans. Taylor & Francis, 2006.