UNITED STATES

Martin Luther King, Jr Day: is it national holiday? Why is it celebrated today? Origin & meaning

MLK became the first modern private individual to have a national holiday honor him, the struggle to bring it to fruition matched the movement he led.

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Martin Luther King, Jr Day: is it national holiday? why it's celebrated today? origin & meaning
BRANDON BELL REUTERS

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day honors the civil rights activist and minister who helped bring about change and racial justice during his lifetime and continues to inspire the nation to reach the mountain top. The road to creating the holiday was as arduous as that of the civil rights movement, taking 15 years to accomplish but still work remains. 

As one of the leading voices and activists of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, Martin Luther King, Jr helped bring about the creation of Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His life was cut short though when he was assassinated 4 April, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel. On this day of remembrance for the civil rights hero Americans are asked not to rest but take action to create the Beloved Community. 

What is the origin of MLK day? 

Just four days after his assassination in 1968, John Conyers, then a Democratic Representative from Michigan, took to the floor of Congress to introduce legislation for a federal holiday, commemorating King’s birthday 15 January. The idea had no traction since Martin Luther King, Jr was seen as a troublemaker by some in his day. He was vilified by many whites for his objection to the Vietnam War and his ideas that were seen as Marxist. But John Conyers continued to push for the national holiday year after year picking up support along the way. 

In the 1970s labor unions put into their bargaining contracts with management a clause to make 15 January a holiday and if it wasn’t the union workers would not come to work that day. This was in a recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr’s close collaboration in the 1950s and early 1960s with union activists. Martin Luther King, Jr was in Memphis to support a strike by AFSCME when he was assassinated. 

MLK Day becomes a national holiday

In 1979 after gaining support from his fellow Representatives and Conyers' bill was finally brought up for debate but failed to get enough votes. This led to Stevie Wonder stepping in to help, putting his voice behind the effort. Wonder released his song Happy Birthday in support of enacting a national Martin Luther King, Jr holiday. The King Center was able to collect six million signatures for a petition, that Coretta Scott King presented to Congress to pass the law. 

The bill to enact the holiday found one last piece of resistance in the form of Republican Senator Jesse Helms who tried to filibuster the bill and present FBI smear material on Martin Luther King, Jr painting him as a communist. In a show of disgust Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan threw the documents on the floor declaring them a "packet of filth" and then proceeded to grind them with his foot. 

On 3 November, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill marking the third Monday of every January, as Martin Luther King, Jr Day. 

Becoming a state holiday took longer

Recognition of the holiday at the state level in all 50 states took several years. New Hampshire was the last state to officially recognize the holiday in the state as "Martin Luther King, Jr Day" in 1999, previously calling it "Civil Rights Day". Alabama and Mississippi Martin Luther King, Jr Day is celebrated alongside Robert E. Lee’s Birthday, who was born 19 January. 

Why its MLK Day celebrated today? 

The holiday has become a call to action, "a day on, not a day off," the only federal holiday designated as a day of national service. All Americans are encouraged to volunteer to improve their communities. The theme and call to action, for the 2021 Observance is “The Urgency of Creating the Beloved Community!