By Aileen Marshall
We all know that the third Monday of January was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the holiday established to honor the civil rights activist. But do you know how it came to be an official federal holiday? This writer can remember a time when the holiday didn’t exist.
Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, was a significant civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s. King was an ordained Baptist minister and had a degree in sociology from Morehouse College in 1948 and graduated from Crozier Theological Seminary in 1951. After he completed his Ph.D. at Boston College in 1955, King became the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. It was there that his history of civil rights activism began. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, in defiance of local segregation laws. That spurred King to organize a city-wide bus boycott by the African-American community. Activists also challenged the bus segregation law in the courts. (The law was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.) King went on to encourage more non-violent acts of civil disobedience. Martin Luther King, Jr. was known for this style of making protests without aggression, such as sit-ins at lunch counters. His efforts and those of others led to the end of segregation laws in twenty-seven cities. King’s most famous event was the 1963 March on Washington, which included his “I Have a Dream” speech and emphasized his belief that one day all Americans would be equal and live in harmony. In 1964, he became the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize. King was assassinated in 1968 by James Earl Ray while standing on his motel balcony in Memphis where he traveled to support a sanitation workers’ strike.
The King family started the drive to have King’s birthday declared a holiday soon after his assassination. A few years later, in 1976, a labor union petitioned to declare it a holiday. The bill went up for a vote in Congress in 1979 but fell five votes short. The idea of the holiday was protested by several state politicians. One argument was that there were already too many paid holidays for federal workers and that another one would be too costly. Another argument put forward by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina was that King protested the Vietnam War. Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona argued that King had Communist ties and compiled an extensive report on the alleged communist activities, which. New York Senator Patrick Moynihan called “a piece of filth.” Senator John McCain of Arizona originally voted against the bill and later reversed his position due to overwhelming support for the holiday. Also, McCain was criticized for not opposing his state governor’s protests against Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Stevie Wonder released his single “Happy Birthday” in 1980 in support of the campaign. Ronald Reagan signed the bill in 1983 and the holiday was celebrated for the first time in 1986. In May of 2000, South Carolina made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday an official paid holiday for state employees. Before that, workers could choose either Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or one of three confederate holidays.
In Virginia and other southern states, Robert E. Lee Day was already a long-standing tradition. The irony of having a Lee/King Day was pointed out. In 2000, in Virginia, Lee Day, was moved to the Friday before King Day, so that they would always be on different days. Mississippi is the only state that still celebrates both holidays on the same day.
Outside the United States, other cities celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In Toronto, Canada, it is an official holiday. In Hiroshima, Japan, the mayor holds a banquet as a way of uniting the city’s call for peace with King’s message of human rights. Citing the shared concern for civil rights, there has been a ceremony each year since 1984 in Israel to honor King. Israel also named one of their national forests for Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1994, a federal regulation was signed making it a national day of service. Americans are encouraged to use the day to perform some sort of community service. If you want to do some volunteer work next Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, go to United We Serve at www.serve.gov.