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Flashback Friday: Martin Luther King Day

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Ronald Reagan signs the bill making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday into a national holiday, as Coretta Scott King watches, Nov. 2, 1983, in Washington. From left are Vice President George Bush; Sen. Charles McCurdy Mathias (R-Md.); Mrs. King; Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.); Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.); Pres. Reagan; and Rep. Katie Hall (D-Ind.) (Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Barry Thumma President )

By Christy Blevins

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day hasn’t been celebrated as a federal holiday for a long time. In fact, the official bill dedicating MLK Jr. Day wasn’t signed and approved until 1983, and the first federal MLK holiday was not celebrated until Jan. 1986, almost 30 years ago.

We all know why we celebrate MLK Jr Day. We commemorate MLK’s leadership, his teachings of nonviolent action, and his push for civil rights, and his life. Celebrations on this day occur very similarly across time, but how did this day come about as a federal holiday?

It started on April 8, 1968, just four days after MLK was assassinated, when congressman John Conyers introduced the first legislation asking for a MLK Jr. Federal Holiday. In June of that same year, the very first memorial to Dr. King was built in Atlanta, GA. The King Center was founded to preserve Dr. King’s papers and teaching, and was also responsible for the first annual observance of his birthday in 1969. This was not a federal observance, but a local celebration.

Fast forward to 1973 when Illinois passed the first state King Holiday Bill, thus becoming the first state to legally recognize and celebrate the holiday. Illinois was followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey in 1974 and ’75.  Not long after this did Mrs. Coretta Scott King push the King Center to begin organizing a nationwide campaign for the holiday, and although the petition finally moved through Congress committees, it was denied in the US House of Representatives by 5 votes.

Celebrations continued year after year in multiple states and throughout the nation without a federal holiday. In 1979, Stevie Wonder actually released the song “Happy Birthday” to celebrate Dr. King, and the song was also specifically made to push for a holiday and call out anyone who objected.

Speaking of objecting to the holiday, President Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981 and was vocally reluctant to support this idea. Luckily enough, Representative Hall of Indiana re-introduced the King Holiday Bill and in 1983 Reagan went against his long-standing objections and signed the bill that granted Dr. King an outstanding Honor. (Fun Fact: Only George Washington held this honor up until Dr. King.) His birthday was thus designated as a national holiday that has since then been celebrated on the third Monday in January.

So next year, in celebration of Dr. King, “flashback” to the history behind the bill, and the history of his life. The day is meant to celebrate his life and teachings and all he put forth, not just getting out of school (some) and getting a day off from work.