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How Did Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Become a Holiday?

It took 18 years and a lot of work to make it happen.

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On the third Monday of January, the federal government observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. This holiday honors the civil rights leader who was killed on April 4, 1968. It took 18 years and a lot of work for it to become a federal holiday.

Dr. King fought for black Americans to live equally with others. He was unpopular with many people at the time of his death. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was controversial. “This was the first holiday around a national figure who is not a president, and who is African American,” said Michael Honey, a historian and professor. “Many in Congress did not want to recognize an African American that was thought of as a troublemaker by some in his day.”

Martin Luther King Day Becomes a Reality

About four years after King was killed, Michigan Representative John Conyers introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would create a federal holiday honoring King. The year after, the King Center in Atlanta began holding yearly ceremonies observing the civil rights leader’s birthday.

In 1979, the bill to create the holiday failed by five votes in the House of Representatives. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and others kept fighting for the government to approve the holiday. Soul singer Stevie Wonder released a song titled “Happy Birthday” to support the cause as well. The song became a smash hit, and he partnered with Coretta Scott King in the 1980s to gain more support.

On November 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a federal holiday. The federal government has observed the holiday since 1986.

Race Relations & Media Affairs Correspondent at and A self-confessed news and political junkie, Jeff’s writing has been featured in Small Business Trends, Business2Community, and The Huffington Post. Born in Southern California and having experienced the 1992 L.A. Riots up close and personal, Jeff’s insights are informed by his experiences as a black man and a conservative.

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