In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing a federal holiday honoring the life civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Beginning in 1986, the holiday would be observed across the country on the third Monday of January. The day coincides closely with King’s actual birthday, which is January 15th.
Despite King’s legacy as a champion for racial justice, efforts to honor King with a holiday were met by critics who fought the move for more than three decades.
Michigan Democrat John Conyers was the first congressional lawmaker to introduce a bill for the holiday. He spoke on the House floor about the need to honor King just four days after the activist’s assassination in 1968.
A senate bill was also introduced that year by Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke, the country’s first black Senator. According to historian Don Wolfensberger, the legislation called on Americans to commemorate King’s life and service to the country with “appropriate honors, ceremonies, and prayers.” Brooke’s bill differed from the legislation proposed by Conyers because it called for a national day of commemoration, but not a federal legal holiday.
Neither bill gained much traction, but that didn’t stop Conyers and Brooke from trying to rally support behind their proposals. With the help of the Congressional Black Caucus, which formed in 1971, Conyers introduced King Day bills proposing every year. In the 93rd Congress between 1973 and 1974, 16 House bills and one Senate bill were introduced, calling for either a national holiday or commemorative day. Conyers sponsored five of the House bills, while Brooke got 27 lawmakers to co-sponsor his Senate bill. The CBC spent years calling attention to their efforts by holding demonstrations across the country.
A formal vote on a King Day bill wouldn’t take place until 1979, the year that would have marked King’s 50th birthday. The proposal fell short by just five votes, but the result signified a changing of the tide.
By then, support for the holiday would be bolstered by the King Center, which launched a national lobbying campaign led by Coretta Scott King. Half a million people participated in a march on Washington organized by the group. King’s widow made speeches and met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in hopes of getting enough people on board.
By the early 1980s, national sentiments had shifted. Corretta presented House leader Tip O’Neil a petition with six million signatures supporting a federal holiday. Musician Stevie Wonder also provided a boost for the cause in 1981 by releasing the song “Happy Birthday” to raise awareness about the holiday proposal.
After years of tireless advocacy, the bill finally had a breakthrough in 1983—the 15th anniversary of King’s death and the 20th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech. The bill overwhelmingly passed in the House by a vote of 338 to 90. During the debate on the House floor, some Republicans argued the cost of creating another paid federal holiday would be crippling for the country. Maryland Congressman Parren Mitchell offered a passionate objection to the notion.
“What do you mean ‘cost?’” Mitchell asked. “What was the cost of keeping us blacks where we were? All these extraneous things do not mean a thing to me. I am talking about what is the right and decent thing to do, and to urge a vote for this bill in the form that it is.”
When the bill made its way to the Senate, efforts to filibuster the measure failed. The billed passed by a vote of 78-22 and immediately signed by President Reagan.
The first MLK Day was officially recognized in 1986, but several states obtained. Some southern states even combined observance of King’s birthday with confederate general Robert E. Lee, who was born on January 19th. South Carolina became the last state to begin observing the holiday in 2000.