Martin Luther King Jr. may have fathered the Civil Rights Movement, but history reveals that turning his Jan. 15 birthday into a national holiday took struggle and persistence. The fact that King was a private citizen and not an elected official made some members of Congress question whether he was prominent enough to deserve a holiday. Other legislators argued that another paid federal holiday would be too expensive. And others believed some of King’s radical ideas and alleged ties to communists made him an inappropriate subject for a holiday.
Despite the controversy surrounding a proposed Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, history was made in 1983 when legislation establishing the day passed. Discover who the key players were in creating a day in celebration of King, the lawmakers who resisted such a holiday and the states which took the longest to recognize King’s legacy.
The Persistence of John Conyers
It took just four days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination before someone suggested making his birthday a federal holiday. U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich) proposed such legislation on April 8, 1968, but Congress chose not to move the holiday legislation forward. Year after year, Conyers introduced the same legislation to no avail. By 1971, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference contributed to the effort to make the slain civil rights leader’s birthday a national holiday. SCLC collected three million signatures from citizens who supported a King holiday, but Congress still chose not to act on the proposed bill.
In 1979, Congress finally moved the holiday bill forward, but the legislation failed to garner five votes needed to make it law. The diligence of Conyers; King’s widow, Coretta Scott King; the Congressional Black Conference; and millions of supporters finally saw dividends in 1983. Then, 15 years after King’s death, more than 100 groups participated in a conference taking place to mark the 19th anniversary of the March on Washington. The conference led to a coalition forming that would lobby for a holiday in King’s honor. Musician Stevie Wonder, who had recorded the 1980 hit single “Happy Birthday” to advocate for a King holiday, donated funds to open a lobbying office in Washington D.C. In the subsequent months, Wonder and Coretta Scott King would present a petition to Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) with six million signatures backing a King holiday. The result? Both the House and the Senate passed the King holiday legislation, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law on Nov. 2, 1983.
The King Holiday’s Opposition
In the House, the bill passed by a vote of 338 to 90, and in the Senate it passed by a vote of 78 to 22. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was among the most prominent Republicans to oppose the King holiday bill. Helms wondered if King was a prominent enough figure to deserve a holiday in his honor. But Rep. Conyers said the bill didn’t just honor King but an entire movement.
“I never viewed it as an isolated piece of legislation to honor one man,” Conyers explained. “Rather, I have always viewed it as an indication of the commitment of the House and the nation to the dream of Dr. King. When we pass this legislation, we should signal our commitment to the realization of full employment, world peace and freedom for all.”
But Helms’ objection to a King holiday didn’t just concern whether the civil rights leader was prominent enough of a figure to have a holiday commemorating his birth. The senator also opposed King’s politics. In particular, Helms took issue with the fact that King objected to the Vietnam War and espoused views Helms considered to be Marxist.
Shortly before his death, King began demanding economic justice for poor people of all races through his “Poor People’s Campaign” march in Washington D.C. And a year before his death, King delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” in which he called the U.S. government the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”