King’s Holiday, a Civil Rights Victory

Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr.

Most people today take for granted the commemoration of the Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr., national holiday. But the truth is that the recognition of the struggle for human rights and racial justice has always been hard fought in this country.
Soon after Dr. King was shot down by an assassin on April 4, 1968, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation seeking to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday.
The King Memorial Center in Atlanta was founded around the same time, and it sponsored the first annual observance of King’s birthday, in January 1969, almost 15 years before it became an official government-sanctioned holiday.
 Three years after Conyers introduced preliminary legislation in 1968, King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting the holiday.
But the law sat in Congress for eight years, unable to gain enough support until President Jimmy Carter, former Georgia governor and the first Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson, vowed to support a King holiday.
The  King Center adopted a new approach, seeking support from the public, and circulating a second petition, which received 6 million signatures. Musician Stevie Wonder released a single “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted a Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981.
Finally, President Ronald Reagan grudgingly signed a bill, creating a federal holiday to honor King, after Congress passed the bill with an overwhelming veto-proof majority. It was observed for the first time on Jan. 20, 1986.
Senator Jesse Helms (Republican, North Carolina) led opposition to the bill and questioned whether King was important enough to receive such an honor. He also criticized King’s opposition to the Vietnam War,  accusing him of espousing “action-oriented Marxism”.
Sen. John McCain (Republican, Arizona) voted against the creation of the holiday and later defended Arizona Republican governor who rescinded the law.
Although the federal holiday was declared in 1986, it was not celebrated in Arizona.  In 1990 the National Football League threatened to move the Super Bowl that was planned to be in Arizona in 1993. This same year, Arizonans were given the opportunity to vote to observe an MLK holiday.
 The Arizona state legislature passed a measure to keep the King holiday, but it was too late as 76 percent of voters rejected the holiday. Consequently, the state lost $500 million and the Super Bowl, which moved to Pasadena, CA.
On May 2, 2000, South Carolina made King’s birthday an official holiday, making it the last state to recognize the day as a paid holiday for all state employees. Prior to this, employees could choose between celebrating Martin Luther King Day or one of three Confederate holidays.
While all states now observe the holiday, some did not name the day after King. In Utah, the holiday was known as “Human Rights Day” until the year 2000.
In Virginia, it was known as Lee-Jackson-King Day, combining King’s birthday with the established Lee-Jackson Day celebrating the lives of Confederate Army generals.  In 2000, Lee-Jackson Day was moved to the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, establishing King’s Day as a holiday in its own right. However, Mississippi still shares the celebration of King’s birthday with Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

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