How the King holiday came to be

| January 15, 2016

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-Memorial-washington-ftrFor many, it seems that there always has been a national holiday honoring the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Today, numerous celebrations are held throughout the country, including here in Fort Wayne, where the MLK Jr. Club hosts one of the biggest and most respected Unity Day gatherings in this part of the country. And, throughout the nation, those said celebrations often feature a plethora of politicians who laud King from podiums and pulpits giving the impression that the establishment of a holiday to honor the fallen civil and human rights leader met with universal approval. The facts, however, are that the road institutionalizing a national King holiday was a rocky one.

Even today, the celebration of King’s life and work often is caught in the midst of battles of speculative politics, with opponents of affirmative action and similar programs trying to argue—especially in the wake of the election and reelection of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first acknowledge modern president of African descent—that King’s desire for a colorblind society has been achieved and that all we have to do is turn a blind eye to the realities of lingering racism in our society. On the other side of the coin, there have been well-placed figures, who have ridden on the coattails of King’s legacy without having paid the dues he did.

Less than 20 years prior to the establishment of the holiday, the FBI had been watching the black leader, with some proponents of the government police agency working hard to smear his name, even going as far as to try to label him a communist sympathizer because of his stance against the Vietnam war—a stance that was merely in line with his total objection to armed conflict of any kind for any cause. For those unfamiliar with the struggle to create the national day of observance, here is an abridged timeline of how the King holiday came to be.

April 8, 1968: Four days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, trying to peacefully intervene on behalf of sanitation workers there, Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduces legislation for a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday in the U.S. House of Representatives.

April 1971: After three years of Congress sidestepping the issue, petitions bearing three million signatures gathered by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which King once led, are presented to Congress asking the legislative body to consider the establishment of a King national holiday. Congress takes no action to move the legislation forward.

1973: The first state King holiday bill, sponsored by then-Assemblyman—and later Chicago’s first black mayor—Harold Washington, is signed into law.

1974: Massachusetts and Connecticut follow Illinois in enacting statewide King holidays.

1975: The New Jersey State Supreme Court rules that the state must provide a paid holiday in honor of Dr. King in accordance with the state government’s labor contract with the New Jersey State Employees Association.

1978: On Nov. 4, the National Council of churches alls on Congress to pass a King holiday bill.

1979: Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, testifies before the Senate judiciary committee and before joint hearings of Congress in support of the establishment of a King holiday. She directs the King Center staff in Atlanta to begin organizing a nationwide citizen’s lobby for a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The King Center launches a nationwide MLK holiday petition campaign, gathering more than 300,000 signatures before the end of the year. President Jimmy Carter calls on Congress to pass legislation establishing the holiday and the King holiday bill finally begins to move through congressional hearings. In November, the bill is defeated in a floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

1980: Motown singer and songwriting legend Stevie Wonder releases “Happy Birthday,” a musical tribute to the life of Dr. King and begins urging the nation to establish a holiday in his honor. The song becomes a hit and serves as a rallying cry for supporters of a holiday. In November, the bill again is defeated in Congress, but only by five votes.

1981: The King Center mobilizes a coalition to lobby for the establishment of the holiday with Stevie Wonder providing the funds to establish and staff a Washington, D.C.-based organization.

1982: In February, Coretta Scott King testifies in support of the holiday before the Subcommittee on Census and Population o f the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. Later, she and Stevie Wonder present petitions bearing more than six million signatures in support of a King holiday to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil.

1983: In August, the House of Representatives finally passes a holiday bill by a vote of 338 to 90. The King Center convenes the 20th Anniversary March on Washington, during which more than 750,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and call on the U.S. Senate passes by a vote of 78 to 22. On Nov. 3, President Reagan signs the bill, which establishes the third Monday of every January as the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. During the signing, however, he makes remarks indicating that people will have to wait until FBI records are declassified to determine if King really was a communist sympathizer.

1984: President Reagan signs legislation providing for the establishment of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission.

1985: The MLK Jr. Club of Fort Wayne, Ind., holds its first community-wide celebration, starting a tradition that will grow into the largest celebration of its kind in the state.

1986: On Jan. 20, the U.S. observes the first national King holiday.

1989: The number of states, which have passed King holiday legislation, grows to 44, with six still not recognizing it as a holiday for state workers.

1990: The United Auto Workers negotiate contracts with the big three automakers requiring a paid King holiday for all their employees. The Wall Street Journal, however, reports that only 18 percent of 317 corporate employers surveyed by the Bureau of National Affairs provide a paid King holiday.

1992: A coalition of citizens supporting a King holiday in Arizona wage a successful campaign to pass a referendum establishing a state holiday there—in one of the last holdout states in the nation.

1993: Arizona observes its first statewide King holiday, leaving only New Hampshire without a state holiday to honor King.

1994: President Bill Clinton signs the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act, expanding the mission of the holiday as a day of community service, interracial cooperation and youth antiviolence initiatives.

1996: The Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Commission concludes its mission and transfers responsibility for coordinating nationwide holiday activities to the King Center in Atlanta.

1998: A Bureau of National Affairs survey of458 employers finds that 26 percent provide a paid holiday for their workers to honor King. The survey finds that 33 percent of firms with union contracts provide paid King holidays, compared to 22 percent of nonunion shops.

Compiled by the Atlanta-based King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, with additional information provided by Frost Illustrated.

Tags: , , , ,

Category: Civil Rights, History, National, Unity Day Celebration

About the Author ()

Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

Comments are closed.