Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated as an icon for democracy, a moral leader, and a pivotal figure in the civil rights and social justice movements. As we celebrate this important observance, we must reflect on the struggle to formally recognize Dr. King’s legacy as a united nation. We must continue his work and commit to ensuring that dignity, access, fair treatment, and human rights for all are not just ideals, but realities.
MLK Day memorializes Dr. King’s important track record of activism and nonviolent leadership. According to a 2020 article in USA TODAY, “The fight for a holiday in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s honor was an epic struggle in and of itself — and it continues to face resistance in the form of competing holidays to leaders of the Confederacy.”1
Today we celebrate MLK Day as a federal holiday, but that was only made possible through tireless efforts2:
- In 1968, four days after Dr. King’s assassination at the age of 39, Democratic Congressman John Conyers, one of the few African Americans serving at the time, took to the floor of Congress insisting that Dr. King be honored with a federal holiday. The impassioned request did not lead to any consensus or action. Passage of the bill was unsuccessful.
- Congressman Conyers, who had visited Selma, Alabama in support of King and the 1965 Freedom Day, was committed to harnessing enough support and sponsorship to one day, regardless of how long it took, to pass the bill. He enlisted the support of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
- For 15 years and with the support of the CBC, Congressman Conyers introduced the bill to the floor on an annual basis.
- In 1983, on the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, veterans of the civil rights movement traveled to Washington to commemorate his powerful words and the 15th anniversary of his murder.
- In 1983, the bill passed 78-22 and President Ronald Reagan signed it marking the third Monday of January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
- The holiday was celebrated for the first time in 1986.
- Several Southern states combined Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with holidays celebrating Confederate leader Robert E. Lee.
- In 1992, after years of referenda and boycotts over whether to celebrate MLK Day, Arizona passed a final referendum recognizing the holiday.
- It was only until 2000 when it became nationally recognized.3 Today, the holiday is still celebrated in conjunction with a celebration of Confederate figures in some states.
As the nation navigates a public health crisis, difficult economic conditions filled with disparities, and a transition of power within a hyperpolarized political context, we must approach each social challenge with a commitment that all individuals are deserving of dignity, equality, and access to the resources to fulfill their full potential.
1 “How did Martin Luther King Jr. Day become a federal holiday? Here’s the history.”, USA TODAY, 1/16/2020 accessed 1/11/2021.
2 “The Fight for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, History,” 1/10/2018, updated 1/14/2020 accessed 1/11/2021.
3 “How did Martin Luther King Jr. Day become a federal holiday? Here’s the history.,” USA TODAY, 1/16/2020 accessed 1/11/2021.