15 Year Battle for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

by Carol Riley, Staff Writer

“I just never understood, how a man who died for good, could not have a day that would, be set aside for his recognition…in peace, our hearts will sing, thanks to Martin Luther King” – Stevie Wonder

President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law on November 2, 1983, and the first national observance took place in 1986. By the year 2000, all 50 states had made it a state government holiday as well. Although Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated on the third Monday of January

Although the legislation to recognize Dr. King was introduced just four days after his assassination, it took 15 years of persistence by civil rights leaders and others, including the determined efforts of Michigan Congressman John Conyers, to have the bill pass in the House and the Senate.

In 1979, on the 50th anniversary of King’s birth, the bill finally came to a vote in the House. Even with a great deal of support from President Jimmy Carter and others, the bill failed to pass by five votes.

Even though the bill failed to pass, public support was growing and one of the most vocal supporters, literally and figuratively, was the singer and musician Stevie Wonder. His 1980 album “Hotter than July” featured “Happy Birthday,” an ode to the vision of King and a cry for recognition for his achievements with a national holiday.

When the bill came to the House again in 1983, the support for the bill was overwhelming. Stevie Wonder, Coretta Scott King, and the Congressional Black Caucus had amassed a six-million-signature petition in favor of the holiday. The bill moved to the Senate and after two days of debate, it was passed, and President Reagan agreed to sign the legislation.

In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, designating the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday as a National Day of Service. The legislation was inspired by the words of Dr. King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” It was proposed by former Congressman John Lewis and former Senator Harris Wofford to encourage Americans to use the holiday to find ways to improve their communities, thus making it “a day on, not a day off.”

Today, it is the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service to encourage all Americans to volunteer and work to improve their communities.