In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we present a series of quick and interesting facts about the creation of MLK Day as a national holiday.The campaign to create MLK day started shortly after his assassination.
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The push to recognize his birthday as a holiday started four days later. But it still took nearly 20 years before President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making the third Monday of every January a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King and his legacy.The holiday’s date coincides with Dr. King’s birthday.
Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929, so the date of the federal holiday was chosen to reflect that fact. The annual date of MLK Jr. Day varies because of calendar changes, but the date never wanders far from January 15.The holiday was not officially observed until 1986.
President Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2, 1983, but the holiday was first observed on January 20, 1986.Complete national recognition took another 14 years.
Even with President Reagan’s signature, MLK Jr. Day did not become a recognized federal holiday throughout the United States until 2000.
Why did this take so long? While the power and influence of Dr. King’s work was undeniable following his assassination, many states were reluctant to honor a holiday based solely on his name. Some states tried to honor the legacy without naming Dr. King directly, preferring to observe “Civil Rights Day” or “Equality Day” on or around January 15. Other states already had their own holidays honoring Dr. King on separate days.Jesse Helms tried to stop the bill.
Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina attempted to stop the bill that Reagan would eventually sign by filibustering against its passage in the Senate. When that failed, he produced a 400-page document accusing Dr. King of being a communist. That effort failed, too.Arizona lost a Super Bowl over MLK Day.
Arizona Governor Bruce Babitt signed an order recognizing the day as a state holiday, but when Babitt left office, new governor Evan Mecham canceled the order and told the press he believed no American, even King, “rated having a holiday alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln."
Things got messy after that. In-state protests were held against the new order. Business and celebrities boycotted the state. In-state ballot initiatives recognizing the holiday failed; one would have eliminated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in favor of MLK Day, another would have made MLK its own additional paid holiday.
Then the NFL got involved. The 1993 Super Bowl had been scheduled to take place in Arizona, but because of the controversy, the NFL relocated the Super Bowl to California. The state relented a few years later.
How to Honor the Legacy.
The best way to honor the legacy of Dr. King would be to get involved in your community. By getting involved, you get a new perspective on the lives and challenges of the people you see interact with, encouraging personal and community growth by empathizing with others.