How MLK Day Came To Be


SAN ANGELO, TX -- Years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, the federal government passed a bill in 1983 that commemorated his birthday on the third Monday of January. But even though the federal holiday is now celebrated nationwide, that wasn't always the case.

From early on in his life, King became one of the country's leading voices fighting for civil rights. According to the Noble Foundation, in the last 11 years of his life, King traveled more than six million miles and gave more than twenty-five hundred speeches in his fight for equality.

Yet even with the legacy that will always be associated with Dr. King and his campaign for civil rights, after his death, many in the county felt a national holiday was not the right move.

The first member of Congress to seek a federal holiday to honor King was Congressman John Conyers of Michigan. He proposed the holiday just days after King was killed, but his effort failed.

Even as bill after bill failed to pass, Rep. Conyers continued to introduce the same piece of legislation for years.

By the 1980s, the movement had gathered increased support and more than six million signatures were collected. Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" song is also credited with helping garner even more support.

The song includes the following lyrics:

"I just never understood

How a man who died for good

Could not have a day that would

Be set aside for his recognition"


"Because it should never be

Just because some cannot see

The dream as clear as he

That they should make it become an illusion"


"And we all know everything

That he stood for time will bring

For in peace, our hearts will sing

Thanks to Martin Luther King"

In 1983, twenty years after King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech, Congress finally passed the legislation that President Ronald Reagan signed on November 2.

But even Congress approving the bill didn't mean that the entire nation would commemorate the federal holdiay right away.

The first time the holiday was celebrated was in 1986 and by 1989 only 44 states commemorated the day.

In the south, multiple states merged the celebration of King's birthday with the birthday of Robert E Lee, the commander of the Confederate army during the Civil War.

States like Arizona initially celebrated the holiday before stopping. The state resumed the practice years later after voters fought for the federal holiday to be observed in their state at the ballot box.

Thus the first time the federal holiday was celebrated equally across all 50 states was in the year 2000, seventeen years after the bill was originally passed.

Now 38 years after the federal holiday was first approved, the country remembers an iconic champion of civil rights and non-violent protest that sought equality for all.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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