Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day not only commemorates one of the most influential figures in American history, but it's emblematic of the minister's fight for Black Americans' rights. While most people are used to taking the day off from school, work, and even public office, that wasn't the case not too long ago.
The road to establishing MLK Day was fraught with challenges and pushback. Even after it became a federal holiday in 1986, it wasn't until 2000 that every single state in the country actually observed it as such. There are a few states today that celebrate a key Confederate figure on the same day as the civil rights icon.
Days after King's shocking assassination in 1986, civil rights leaders and even politicians brainstormed about how to commemorate his achievements. Enter John Conyers Jr., a Democratic Congressman from Michigan and one of the few Black members of Congress at the time. He pushed for a U.S. holiday to honor King, but his requests weren't heeded.
Back then, King wasn't seen as the trailblazing hero he is today. He was seen as a troublemaker and even a threat to the country, according to Michael Honey, a historian and professor of humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma.
“This was the first holiday around a national figure who is not a president, and who is African American,” Honey explained to USA Today. “Many in Congress did not want to recognize an African American that was thought of as a troublemaker by some in his day.”
Year after year, Conyers would introduce the bill with hopes that it'll get passed. Every time he did, it would get shot down. Even Coretta Scott King testified multiple times for the holiday. But every time he would bring the bill to the Congress floor, he would gather more and more support, including the Congressional Black Caucus.
While the legislation stalled for years, annual celebrations of King's life continued. Then, a breakthrough happened in the 1980s.
The Tides Turn
Stevie Wonder, the blind musical genius, released a hit song dedicated to the late minister and activist in 1981: "Happy Birthday." This song alone drummed up tons of support for the federal holiday. On top of that, the CBC and the King Center got over six million of signatures supporting the bill. Those efforts, combined with milestone commemorations of the March on Washington, the "I Have A Dream" speech, and King's death, made the issue too big to ignore.
Fifteen years after Conyers introduced the effort, Congress finally heard arguments for why MLK Day should become a federal holiday. Jesse Helms, a Republican senator from North Carolina, was one of the most vocal opponents of the bill. He led a filibuster and presented a 400-page document accusing King of being a Communist among other unsavory allegations.
Daniel Patrick Moniyan, a Democratic senator from New York, famously called the documents "filth" before slamming them on the Congress floor. The next day, the bill passed with a 78-22 vote with President Ronald Reagan immediately signing it into law on November 2, 1983. This also made King the first private citizen to have a federal holiday..
Even though the hard part is over, there were still hurdles to overcome.
Struggle For Observance
The first time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed was in 1986, but some states wouldn't observe it for years. The biggest pushback happened in Arizona, where it began observing the holiday but then rescinded it. This kicked off a years-long fight over MLK Day, including several referendums and boycotts within the state. It wasn't until 1992 that a final referendum upheld observing the holiday. By 2000, every single state in America finally observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Even then, four states honor Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee around the same time. In Alabama and Mississippi, it's a state holiday that's observed on the third Monday of January -- just like MLK Day.
Politicians, activists, and even King's family struggled for years to have King's memory immortalized as a federal holiday, but they were successful in the end. Many schools and organizations even used the day for community service to honor the civil rights leader's commitment to lifelong stewardship. Even King's only granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, encourages people to do something impactful every third Monday of January.
“MLK Day is not a day off. it should be treated as a day on. It’s a day of service," she said, per NBC News. “I think that instead of idolizing my grandfather, pick a service project and do something to help the community,” Yolanda said. “It could be something as simple as picking up trash around your neighborhood park.”