It took 15 years to create the Martin Luther King, Jr., federal holiday. Congressman John Conyers, Democrat from Michigan, first introduced legislation for a commemorative holiday four days after King was assassinated in 1968. After the bill stalled, petitions endorsing the holiday containing six million names were submitted to Congress, termed by a 2006 article in The Nation as "the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history."
Conyers and Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, resubmitted the King holiday legislation each subsequent legislative session. Public pressure for the holiday mounted during the 1982 and 1983 civil rights marches in Washington.
Congress passed the holiday legislation in 1983, which was then signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. A compromise to move the holiday from Jan. 15, King's birthday, to the third Monday in January helped overcome opposition to the law.
National Consensus on the Holiday
A number of states resisted celebrating the holiday. Some opponents said King did not deserve his own holiday—contending that the entire civil rights movement rather than one individual, however instrumental, should be honored. Several southern states include celebrations for various Confederate generals on that day.
In 1990, Arizonans were given the opportunity to vote to observe an MLK holiday. In 1990, the National Football League threatened to move the Super Bowl, planned to be in Arizona in 1993 if the MLK holiday was voted down. The state legislature passed a measure to keep both Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Day, but 76% of voters rejected the King holiday. Consequently, the state "lost $500 million and the Super Bowl," which moved to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. In a referendum in 1992, the voters approved recognition of the holiday.
In 1999, New Hampshire changed the name of Civil Rights Day to Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.
National Day of Service
The national Martin Luther King Day of Service was started by former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Harris Wofford and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, who co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act. The federal legislation challenges Americans to transform the King Holiday into a day of citizen action volunteer service in honor of Dr. King. The federal legislation was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on August 23, 1994.
Thanks to the MLK Center, NationalService.gov, and Wikipedia for the information.
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