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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: The Long Road to Honor

Those who wanted Martin Luther King, Jr. honored struggled for years to make it happen.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of America’s most recognized historical figures. Through his work with the civil rights movement, he brought about one of the most important steps the nation took to address its unfair and discriminatory treatment of black Americans after slavery was abolished. Nearly 20 years after King’s death, the country finally decided to honor him with his own holiday.

It Wasn’t Easy At First

On the third Monday of January, the federal government observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to honor the civil rights leader who was murdered on April 4, 1968. But it took years for it to become a federal holiday. Even after the federal government declared the holiday, several states still did not choose to observe it.

Many don’t know that at the time of his death, King was not very well-liked nationwide. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was considered rather controversial. “This was the first holiday around a national figure who is not a president, and who is African American,” according to Michael Honey, a historian and professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma. “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’s assassination, 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. Through these events, people started working to gain support for the legislation.

Later in the 1970s, more people started to support the creation of a Martin Luther King Dr. holiday. Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts became the first states to implement holidays for the leader.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter urged Congress to vote on the King Holiday Bill, but it was defeated by five votes in the House of Representatives.

However, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and others kept fighting for the government to approve the holiday. They testified in front of Congress numerous times, trying to persuade them to adopt 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 garner more support for the initiative.

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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