We owe the historical feat to Coretta Scott King!
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a revered civil rights leader who fought tirelessly for equality. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a pillar of hope for Black people far and wide, King’s commitment to freedom, upward economic mobility, and equal rights for African-Americans remains awe-inspiring. He sacrificed his life for our rights and every year, we honor his heroism and legacy during his birth month on a federal holiday known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While the day is a staple in our society today, it wasn’t always that way, and the road to making King Day a reality was long and arduous. Let’s take a look back on that journey. Here’s what you need to know about the 15-year battle behind Martin Luther King Jr. Day, courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The legislation for King Day was introduced 4 days after he was assassinated.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. On April 8, 1968, Democratic Michigan Congressman, John Conyers, proposed the bill to create a holiday in King’s honor.
“To me, [King] is the outstanding international leader of the 20th century without ever holding office. What he did – I doubt anyone else could have done,” Rep. John Conyers once said.
The bill initially received minimal Congressional support.
After King’s death, there was widespread outrage and collective marches honoring the assassinated leader. Despite the support for the bill around the globe, it took years before the federal government would even take it seriously, Rep. Conyers reintroducing the legislation annually with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped found.
It took more than a decade after King’s death for the bill to be voted on.
On January 15, 1979, what would have been King’s 50th birthday, the bill finally was put to a vote in the House. A petition of 300,000 signatures in favor of the holiday supported the bill and President Jimmy Carter and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, all publicly shared their support. Still, it was rejected by five votes in the house, Republican Congressman Gene Taylor of Missouri citing additional federal holiday costs and the tradition of private citizens not receiving public holidays in their honor.
Stevie Wonder helped push national support for the holiday through his music.
On Stevie Wonder’s 1980 Hotter Than July album, he featured a song entitled “Happy Birthday,” paying homage to King’s life and galvanizing a nation around the idea of a national holiday in his honor. Wonder accompanied Coretta Scott King at rallies and completed his four-month tour with a benefit concert in the National Mall where King previously gave his “I Have A Dream” speech 18 years earlier.
“You know it doesn’t make much sense /There ought to be a law against /Anyone who takes offense /At a day in your celebration ’cause we all know in our minds/ That there ought to be a time/ That we can set aside / To show just how much we love you /And I’m sure you would agree/ What could fit more perfectly/ Than to have a world party on the day you came to be/ Happy birthday to you,” Wonder sang.
Fifteen years after King’s murder, the bill would finally be signed into law.
In 1983, the bill reached the house floor again, with Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, and the Congressional Black Caucus presenting a six million signature petition in favor of the bill. It passed in the House with a vote of 338 to 90 but there was still dissent in the Senate. North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms tried to dismiss the legislation, alleging that King had ties to the communist party. Democratic New York Congressman Daniel Patrick Moynihan was so outraged by the personal attack against King’s character that he stomped on the 300-page binder on the house floor, describing it as a “packet of filth.”
On November 2nd, the bill passed, and President Ronald Reagan reluctantly signed the legislation making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.
“I would have preferred a non-holiday in King’s honor but since they seem bent on making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I will sign that legislation when it reaches my desk,” said Reagan.
It took almost another two decades for all 50 states to recognize MLK Jr. Day.
Even after the federal recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, statewide observance of the holiday varied. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that all 50 states finally recognized MLK Jr. Day. On August 23, 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act into law. The late Congressman John Lewis and former Senator Harris Wofford had both proposed legislations to make the holiday a day of service, encouraging Americans to find ways to improve their community in honor of King. Today, there are some states who still don’t fully recognize MLK Jr. Day, Arizona and New Hampshire choosing instead to celebrate “Civil Rights Day,” and Wyoming honoring “Wyoming Equality Day.” In a disrespectful turn of events, Alabama and Mississippi, on the other hand, have chosen to celebrate the King holiday alongside Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose legacy and value was the antithesis of everything King stood for.
None of it would’ve happened without Coretta Scott King.
Just three months after King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King founded The King Center in his honor. Daughter Bernice King once called her the “architect of the King legacy.” During the time when government support for the bill was all but nonexistent, it was the matriarch Coretta Scott King who kept the torch burning, determined to keep her husband’s name and his work alive.
“My father would not be the person that he is and [have] his iconic stature had it not been for the work that she did so I speak certain things intentionally. I have incorporated in our commemorative service (the official service held on the King Holiday) a special tribute to her so that people are reminded that this holiday that we are celebrating really would not have happened had she not been diligent and determined. She had a strategy around it. While Congressman Conyers was introducing legislation that continued to fail in the House, she was building up a groundswell of support in different cities and states across the nation, sending out letters to different municipalities and encouraging them to celebrate the King Holiday every year. So by the time the holiday actually passed as a federal holiday, many cities were already commemorating his birthday every year because of the efforts she made encouraging people to do that. Most people don’t know that more than 100 nations celebrate a holiday of a leader that is not a citizen of their nation… Before her death, she was never on a banner. She is on them now because we want people to know it was a partnership,” Bernice King once told reporters.
Thank you for your work Dr. King. Today and every day, we celebrate you!
Here’s what you need to know about the 15-year battle behind MLK Jr. Day. Photo Courtesy of Robert D. Farber University Archives/Special Collections Department/Brandeis University/BrandeisNOW