Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a United States federal holiday marking the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around the time of King’s birthday, January 15. The floating holiday is similar to holidays set under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, though the act predated the establishment of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by 15 years.
King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law. The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968. Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed on January 20, 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.
The idea of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday was promoted by labor unions in contract negotiations.After King’s death, United States Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and United States Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican from Massachusetts) 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).Only two other persons have national holidays in the United States honoring them: George Washington, the first President of the United States, and Christopher Columbus, the navigator, colonizer, and explorer from the Republic of Genoa, whose voyages across the Atlantic Ocean led to general European awareness of the American continents.
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, President 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, Martin Luther King Jr.’s wife, was made a member of this commission for life by President George H. W. Bush in May 1989.
Reluctance to Observe
Senator Jesse Helms (Republican of North Carolina) led opposition to the bill and questioned whether King was important enough to receive such an honor. He also criticized King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and accused him of espousing “action-oriented Marxism”.
President Ronald Reagan might also have been opposed to the holiday, citing cost concerns. He grudgingly signed the measure only after Congress passed it with an overwhelming veto-proof majority (338 to 90 in the House of Representatives and 78 to 22 in the Senate). Reagan earlier said that he would do so because “Congress seemed bent on making it a national holiday.”
Sen. John McCain (Republican of Arizona) voted against the creation of the holiday to honor King, and later defended Arizona Republican Governor Evan Mecham’s rescission of the state holiday in honor of King created by his Democratic predecessor. After his opposition grew increasingly untenable, McCain reversed his position, and encouraged his home state of Arizona to recognize the holiday despite opposition from Mecham.
Former Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, created the holiday by executive order just before he left office in 1986; but Mecham, armed with an attorney general’s opinion that Babbitt’s order was illegal, rescinded it days after he took office. Mecham subsequently issued his own executive order, setting aside the third Sunday in January as an unpaid holiday to honor King, but it never was recognized by supporters of a paid holiday. Mecham was impeached and removed from office for unrelated actions in 1988.
In 1989, the Arizona state legislature replaced Columbus Day with the King holiday outraging Italian-Americans. In 1990 the National Football League threatened to move the Super Bowl that was planned to be in Arizona in 1993. This same year, Arizonans were given the opportunity to vote to observe an MLK holiday. McCain successfully appealed to former President Ronald Reagan to support the holiday. The state legislature passed a measure to keep both Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Day, but it was too late as 76% of voters rejected the King holiday. Consequently, the state “lost $500 million and the Super Bowl” which moved to Pasadena, California.
In 1991, the New Hampshire legislature created “Civil Rights Day” and abolished “Fast Day”. In 1999, “Civil Rights Day” was officially changed to “Martin Luther King Day,” becoming the last state to have a holiday named after Dr. King.
On May 2, 2000, South Carolina governor Jim Hodges signed a bill to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday an official state holiday. South Carolina was the last state to recognize the day as a paid holiday for all state employees. Prior to this, employees could choose between celebrating Martin Luther King Day or one of three Confederate holidays.
Overall, in 2007, 33% of employers gave employees the day off, a 2% increase over the previous year. There was little difference in observance by large and small employers: 33% for firms with over 1,000 employees; and, 32% for firms with under 1,000 employees. The observance is most popular amongst nonprofit organizations and least popular among factories and manufacturers. The reasons for this have varied, ranging from the recent addition of the holiday, to its occurrence just two weeks after the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when many businesses are closed for part or sometimes all of the week. Additionally, many schools and places of higher education are closed for classes; others remain open but may hold seminars or celebrations of King’s message. Some factories and manufacturers used MLK Day as a floating or movable holiday. Many business that used to close on Presidents’ Day now stay open on that day and close on MLK Day instead.
While all states now observe the holiday, some did not name the day after King. In Utah, the holiday was known as “Human Rights Day” until the year 2000, when the Utah State Legislature voted to change the name of the holiday from Human Rights Day to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In that same year Governor Michael O. Leavitt signed the bill officially naming the holiday “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day”.
In Virginia, it was known as Lee-Jackson-King Day, combining King’s birthday with the established Lee-Jackson Day. The incongruous nature of the holiday, which simultaneously celebrated the lives of Confederate Army generals and a civil rights icon, did not escape the notice of Virginia lawmakers. In 2000, Lee-Jackson Day was moved to the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday in its own right. However, Mississippi still shares this co-celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the third Monday of January.
In Arizona, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is known as “Martin Luther King, Jr./Civil Rights Day”; while in New Hampshire, its official name is “Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Day”.
King 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. Since 1996, the annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service has been the largest event in the nation honoring Dr. King.
Several other universities and organizations around the U.S., such as Arizona State University, Greater DC Cares and City Year, participate in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. In honor of MLK, volunteers across the country donate their time to make a difference on this day.
Outside the US
One place outside the United States where Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed with equal importance is in the Japanese city of Hiroshima under mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, who holds a special banquet at the mayor’s office as an act of unifying his city’s call for peace with King’s message of human rights.
The City of Toronto is another city that observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this is in part because of the many American Canadians in the city.
In 1984, during a visit by the U.S. Sixth Fleet, Navy chaplain Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff conducted the first Israeli Presidential ceremony in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, held in the President’s Residence, Jerusalem. Mrs. Aura Herzog, wife of Israel’s then-President Chaim Herzog, noted that she was especially proud to host this special event, because Israel had a national forest in honor of Dr. King, and that Israel and Dr. King shared the idea of dreams. Resnicoff continued this theme in his remarks during the ceremony, quoting the verse from Genesis, spoken by the brothers of Joseph when they saw their brother approach, “Behold the dreamer comes; let us slay him and throw him into the pit, and see what becomes of his dreams.” Resnicoff noted that, from time immemorial, there have been those who thought they could kill the dream by slaying the dreamer, but – as the example of Dr. King’s life shows – such people are always wrong.
King was included in a 1998 series from Kyrgyzstan.
Since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., memorial stamps have been issued in his honor worldwide. The first postage stamp to honor the internationally known civil rights leader was issued by Ras Al-Khaimah on May 25, 1968. Other places have also issued stamps such as Cameroon, Mali, Sharjah, Mexico, India, Liberia, Rwanda, and the Virgin Islands. More recently, other states have issued stamps and postal souvenir sheets in Dr. King’s honor. Today, the civil rights leader has had more postage stamps issued in his honor than any other Black American.
On January 13, 1979, the United States Postal Service unveiled a 15 cent commemorative stamp as a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. during ceremonies at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It was the 10th stamp in honor of a Black American and the second stamp issued in the Black Heritage USA Series which recognizes the contributions of Black Americans to the development of the United States. The U.S. Postal Service issued 166,435,000 King stamps.