Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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This article is about the American federal holiday. For Martin Luther King Jr.'s actual birthday, see January 15.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Martin Luther King press conference 01269u edit.jpg
Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964
Official name Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Also called MLK Day, King Day
Observed by United States
Type National
Date Third Monday in January
2014 date January 20  (2014-01-20)
2015 date January 19  (2015-01-19)
2016 date January 18  (2016-01-18)
2017 date January 16  (2017-01-16)
Frequency annual

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (officially Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.)[1] is an American federal holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around King's birthday, January 15. The holiday is similar to holidays set under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

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. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed three years later. 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.


Sign from 1969 promoting a holiday to honor the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The idea of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday was promoted by labor unions in contract negotiations.[2] After King's death, U.S. Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and U.S. 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.[3] 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).[3] Only two other figures have national holidays in the U.S. honoring them: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.

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."[2]

Ronald Reagan and Coretta Scott King at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day signing ceremony.

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.[4][5] 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.[6][7]

Reluctance to observe[edit]

Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East (both North Carolina Republicans) led opposition to the bill and questioned whether King was important enough to receive such an honor. Helms criticized King's opposition to the Vietnam War and accused him of espousing "action-oriented Marxism".[8] Helms led a filibuster against the bill and on October 3, 1983, submitted a 300-page document to the Senate alleging that King had associations with communists. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the document a "packet of filth", threw it on the Senate floor and stomped on it.[9][10]

President Ronald Reagan originally opposed the holiday, citing cost concerns. When asked to comment on Helms' accusations that King was a communist, the President said “We'll know in thirty-five years, won't we?”[11] He later signed the measure, after it passed with a 338 to 90 veto-proof margin in favor in the House of Representatives.[8]

Arizona governor Governor Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, created a paid state MLK holiday in Arizona by executive order just before he left office in 1986, but his Republican successor Evan Mecham, armed with an attorney general's opinion that Babbitt's order was illegal, rescinded it days after he took office.[12] In 1990, Arizona voters were given the opportunity to vote on giving state employees an MLK holiday. That same year, the National Football League threatened to move Super Bowl XXVII, which was planned for Arizona in 1993, if the MLK holiday was voted down.[13] In the November election, 51% of voters rejected the King holiday.[14] Consequently, the state "lost $500 million and the Super Bowl," which was held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.[13] In a 1992 referendum, the voters approved state-level recognition of the holiday.[15]

In 1991, the New Hampshire legislature created "Civil Rights Day" and abolished "Fast Day".[16] 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.[17]

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.[18]

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 among nonprofit organizations and least popular among factories and manufacturers.[19] 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.[citation needed]

Alternative names[edit]

While all states now observe the holiday, some did not name the day after King. For example, in Utah, the holiday was known as "Human Rights Day" until 2000,[20] 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".[20][21]

Several additional states have chosen to combine commemorations of King's birthday with other observances, in some cases creating compatible pairings, in other cases incongruous ones:

  • In Arizona, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is known as "Martin Luther King Jr./Civil Rights Day".[23]
  • In Arkansas, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is known as "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee’s Birthdays".[24]
  • In Mississippi, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is known as "Martin Luther King's and Robert E. Lee's Birthdays".[26]
  • In New Hampshire, its official name is "Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day".[27]
  • In Virginia, it was known as Lee–Jackson–King Day, combining King's birthday with the established Lee–Jackson Day.[20] 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.[28]

King Day of Service[edit]

In honor of the Martin Luther King Day of Service, President Barack Obama serves lunch in the dining room at So Others Might Eat, a soup kitchen in Washington, January 18, 2010.
A Martin Luther King Day march in Oregon.

The national Martin Luther King Day of Service[29] 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, Wofford's former state office director, Todd Bernstein, has been directing the annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service,[30] the largest event in the nation honoring Dr. King.[31]

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, hundreds of Volunteer Centers, and volunteers across the country donate their time to make a difference on this day.

Outside the United States[edit]

One place outside the U.S. 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.[32]

The city of Toronto, Canada, is another city that has officially recognized Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, although not as a paid holiday: all government services and businesses remain open.[33]

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".[34] 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.[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Federal Holidays". Retrieved January 20, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Jones, William P. (January 30, 2006). "Working-Class Hero". The Nation. Archived from the original on January 16, 2011. Retrieved January 17, 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Wolfensberger, Don (January 14, 2008). "The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday: The Long Struggle in Congress, An Introductory Essay". Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Archived from the original on January 16, 2011. Retrieved January 16, 2011. 
  4. ^ Woolley, John T.; Gerhard Peters (November 2, 1983). "Ronald Reagan: Remarks on Signing the Bill Making the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a National Holiday". The American Presidency Project. Archived from the original on January 16, 2011. Retrieved January 16, 2011. 
  5. ^ Pub.L. 98–399, 98 Stat. 1475, enacted November 2, 1983
  6. ^ Woolley, John T.; Gerhard Peters (May 17, 1989). "George Bush: Remarks on Signing the Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday Commission Extension Act". The American Presidency Project. Archived from the original on January 16, 2011. Retrieved January 16, 2011. 
  7. ^ Pub.L. 101–30, 103 Stat. 60, enacted May 17, 1989
  8. ^ a b Dewar, Helen (October 4, 1983). "Helms Stalls King's Day In Senate". The Washington Post. p. A01. Archived from the original on January 16, 2011. Retrieved January 16, 2011. 
  9. ^ Romero, Frances (January 18, 2010). "A Brief History Of Martin Luther King Jr. Day". Time. 
  10. ^ Courtwright, David T. (2010). No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. p. 13. ISBN 0-674-04677-3. 
  11. ^ "Reagan on MLK’s purported Communist sympathies: “We’ll know in 35 years, won’t we?”". January 2015. 
  12. ^ Ye Hee Lee, Michelle (January 15, 2012). "Recalling Arizona's struggle for MLK holiday". The Arizona Republic. Retrieved January 20, 2013. 
  13. ^ a b "". Retrieved February 5, 2013. 
  14. ^ Shumway, Jim (26 November 1990). "STATE OF ARIZONA OFFICIAL CANVASS - GENERAL ELECTION - November 6, 1990" (PDF). Arizona Secretary of State ~ Home Page. Arizona Secretary of State. p. 12. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  15. ^ Reingold, Beth (2000). Representing Women: Sex, Gender, and Legislative Behavior in Arizona and California. Univ of North Carolina Press. pp. 66–. ISBN 9780807848500. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  16. ^ Gilbreth, Donna (1997). "Rise and Fall of Fast Day". New Hampshire State Library. Archived from the original on January 17, 2011. Retrieved January 17, 2011. 
  17. ^ Goldberg, Carey (May 26, 1999). "Contrarian New Hampshire To Honor Dr. King, at Last". The New York Times. Archived from the original on January 17, 2011. Retrieved January 17, 2011. 
  18. ^ The History of Martin Luther King Day, Infoplease
  19. ^ Cody, Karen James (January 9, 2007). "More Employers Plan to Observe Martin Luther King Day". Bureau of National Affairs. Archived from the original on January 17, 2011. 
  20. ^ a b c Petrie, Phil W. (May–June 2000). "The MLK holiday: Branches work to make it work". The New Crisis. Retrieved November 12, 2008. 
  21. ^ "S.B. 121 Bill Documents - 2000 General Session". Retrieved January 2, 2012. 
  22. ^ "Calendar". 
  23. ^ "1-301. Holidays enumerated". Arizona Legislature. 
  24. ^ "State Holidays Calendar". 
  25. ^ "TItle 73". 
  26. ^ "State Holidays". 
  27. ^ "CHAPTER 288 HOLIDAYS". New Hampshire General Court. 
  28. ^ Duran, April (April 10, 2000). "Virginia creates holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.". On The Lege (Virginia Commonwealth University). Archived from the original on January 17, 2011. Retrieved January 17, 2011. 
  29. ^
  30. ^ "Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service". Global Citizen. 
  31. ^ Moore, Doug (January 16, 2011). "MLK events in Missouri form man’s legacy". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Archived from the original on January 17, 2011. 
  32. ^ 広島市ホームページリニューアルのお知らせ
  33. ^ Miller, David (2008). "City of Toronto Proclamation". City of Toronto. Archived from the original on January 17, 2011. 
  34. ^ The Jewish Week & The American Examiner, pg 37, February 3, 1986.
  35. ^ Library of Congress Veterans History Project Oral History, Arnold Resnicoff, May 2010.

External links[edit]