The third Monday of every January is dedicated to honoring the life and courageous leadership of heroic civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, it seems completely natural that we celebrate this strong, honorable man. However, the fight for this special holiday took a lot of hard work over a period of 15 years.
We celebrate Dr. King today because of his leadership and strength of character. Not only did King lead marches about voting rights and desegregation, but before his death, he had begun organizing for labor rights and other civil rights as well. He oversaw the Montgomery bus boycott, he was a leader at the March on Washington, and he was the push the country needed for key legislation to be approved: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He was truly a man of “the people,” not of a certain race or gender. He represented all people in the United States who needed a strong voice when they felt they were not being heard.
An Uphill Battle
Shortly after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the planning began. During the 1960s and 1970s, King was still considered a controversial figure, so gaining the rights for a federal holiday wasn’t as simple as you might think. Of course, today, we can see the work that King did and recognize it as essential, effective, and inspired. In the 60s and 70s, the fight for equal rights was still moving forward, so many people didn’t see Dr. King’s work in the same light as we do today.
Another reason why advocates of the holiday struggled was because Dr. King was not a president. No other federal holiday yet existed celebrating a national figure who was not a president. Added to the fact that King was an African American man, and those involved in the fight for appropriate recognition for his work were ultimately in for an uphill battle. As much as we would like to imagine that everyone could see his value and the huge impact he made on our culture and the political landscape of the nation, the reality was much different.
Today, we celebrate King in part for his strong leadership, but it took strong leaders to push for this important holiday, too. In April of 1968, US Representatives John Conyers (D) and Edward Brooke (R) both introduced a bill to Congress asking to turn King’s birthday into a federal holiday. This courageous act was the start of the fight to recognize King’s contribution to the nation.
Nothing came of this action, and it wasn’t until 1979 – 11 years later – that the US House of Representatives even voted on the bill. People first argued that another federal holiday would cost too much because employees would be paid without working, and the second argument was – of course – that King was not a U.S. president.
Voices continued to call for the federal holiday despite these two arguments against it. More and more private citizens spoke up, celebrities got involved, and important political leaders let their voices be heard in favor of the movement, too.
Finally, the bill crossed President Ronald Reagan’s desk in 1983, and he signed it into law to be effective in 1986 when the holiday would first be observed.
Unfortunately, some states refused to celebrate Martin Luther King, Junior, Day, and it wasn’t until 2000 that all fifty states joined in the honoring of this deserving man. The final five states who were holdouts about the celebration include Arizona (1993), New Hampshire (1999), Virginia (2000), Utah (2000), and South Carolina (2000). In other words, even though the battle started in 1968, King didn’t truly begin receiving the full recognition he was due until 32 years later.
Although some people have the day off and others take the time to listen to or read his words, what can you do to honor Dr. King today? King’s last battle ground was around worker’s rights and voting rights, so one activity you could do to honor him would be to read a little bit about what’s going on today regarding those issues.
Another option is to get involved in your local community center to keep the work going that Dr. King started. His goal was unity, and community centers help the young and old in your community feel tied to people who care.
Finally, instead of reading the usual “I have a dream” speech, step out of your comfort zone and see what more you can learn about King and the other people who fought so hard for the rights of all Americans.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He died April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. In his 39 years of life, he made an impact first on his family, next on his church and community, and finally on the nation. We can all learn from his strength, courage, and persistence in the face of adversity, but we can also take a lesson from those who fought to give him his due honor as well today as we celebrate King across the nation.
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