The History of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Written by Amber Baldwin


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Every third Monday in January the United States celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  This federal holiday was first observed in 1986.  It also became the first holiday that is centered around someone who is not a president and someone who is African American. 

Dr. Richanne C. Mankey, Defiance College President, shared her thoughts on the importance of Martin Luther King Jr Day by stating, “Yes, it is important to honor the vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“His inspiration was for humanity to become increasingly more inclusive” Dr. Mankey continued.

“He spoke to the character of human beings rather than other features like race or ethnicity. His quote about his children and the world into which they would grow up was powerful:  “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character..” from his I Have a Dream speech.” quoted Dr. Mankey.

Even though Dr. King spoke powerful words and lead a life of strong conviction, the celebration of the holiday took almost 20 years.

The federal holiday was first introduced to legislation on April 8, 1968, four days after King’s death, by Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan. 

Then, in the 1970’s the support for this holiday increased, but it was not enough. The bill lost by five votes in the House in November of 1979. The people who were in disagreement viewed King as someone who created trouble, so they did not want to give him his own holiday. 

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King, who was married to King, still decided to keep fighting and ended up testifying before Congress many times. 

Stevie Wonder even worked with Coretta Scott King to gain even more support.  In 1982 both of them brought a petition with 6 million signatures that were all for the holiday to the Speaker of the House. 

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Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder accepting an award

The bill was finally signed by President Ronald Reagan on November 3, 1983, to begin the holiday in 1986. 

By 1986 seventeen states had already created a holiday for Marth Luther King, Jr.  Now many businesses, government offices, and schools are closed on this federal holiday. 

“For most of my life, it was a day off school that I didn’t really understand. Now, I like to reflect on one of the best activists the world had ever seen”, a fellow college student remarked about how they spent the day.

However, there are still some cities in some states like Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina that do not observe the holiday and use it as a make-up school day.

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