The History of MLK Day
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a United States holiday marking the birth date of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King's birthday, January 15. It is one of four United States federal holidays to commemorate an individual person.
King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. He was assassinated in 1968. Prior to his untimely death, Dr. King gave his famous Speech "I Have a Dream" on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington.
Watch the full speech
(the famous portion begins at 12:00).
The campaign for a federal holiday in King's honor began soon after his assassination. Frater Ronald Reagan (Iota, Eureka College) signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed in 1986. At first, some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was founded as a holiday promoted by labor unions in contract negotiations. After King's death, United States Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a bill in Congress to make King's birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979. However, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage. Two of the main arguments mentioned by opponents were that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive, and that a holiday to honor a private citizen would be contrary to longstanding tradition (King had never held public office). Soon after, The King Center
turned to support from the corporate community and the general public. The success of this strategy was cemented when musician Stevie Wonder released the single "Happy Birthday
" to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Six million signatures were collected for a petition to Congress to pass the law, termed by a 2006 article in The Nation as "the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history."
At the White House Rose Garden on November 2, 1983, United States President Frater Ronald Reagan signed a bill, proposed by Representative Katie Hall of Indiana, creating a federal holiday to honor King. It was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.
The bill established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission to oversee observance of the holiday, and Coretta Scott King was made a member of this commission for life by United States President George H. W. Bush in May, 1989.
Quick Facts About Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Date of birth: January 15, 1929
- Place of birth: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
- Date of death: April 4, 1968 (aged 39)
- Place of death: Memphis, Tennessee, United States
- Movement: African-American Civil Rights and Peace Movement
Major organizations: Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
- Selected as one of the ten most outstanding personalities of the year by Time Magazine, 1957.
- Listed in Who’s Who in America, 1957.
- The Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, 1957.
- The Russwurm Award from the National Newspaper Publishers, 1957.
- The Second Annual Achievement Award from The Guardian Association of the Police Department of New York, 1958.
- Selected as one of the sixteen world leaders who had contributed most to the advancement of freedom during 1959 by Ling Magazine of New Delhi, India.
- Named “Man of the Year” by Time Magazine, 1963.
- Named “American of the Decade,” by the Laundry, Dry Cleaning, and Die Workers, International Union, 1963.
- The John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers, 1964.
- The John F. Kennedy Award from the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago, 1964.
- The Nobel Peace Prize, at age 35, the youngest man, second American, and the third black man to be so honored, 1964.
- The Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights, presented by the Jamaican Government, posthumously, 1968.
- The Rosa L. Parks award, presented by The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, posthumously, 1968.
- The Aims Field-Wolf Award for his book, Stride Toward Freedom.
- Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977, posthumous)
- Congressional Gold Medal (2004, posthumous)