On this day in history, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill authorizing a federal holiday on the third Monday of January every year, close to the time of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. which was on January 15.
The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began on April 8, 1968, just four days after King’s assassination, when Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) first introduced a bill to establish January 15th, the slain leader’s birthday, as a Federal holiday. Conyers introduced the bill year after year, Congress after Congress, gathering cosponsors along the way. But it wasn’t until 1979 that the measure even came to a vote in the House.
In the Senate, Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), the only African-American senator, also began introducing legislation in 1968 authorizing the President to issue a proclamation each year designating January 15 as “Martin Luther King Day” (a national day of commemoration, but not a Federal legal holiday). In subsequent congresses bills were introduced repeatedly, but never made progress.
For the 15th anniversary of King’s death, lobbying for the bill intensified. In 1982 Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder presented a petition to Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) containing the signatures of six million citizens in support of the King holiday.
On August 27, 1983, the Martin Luther King, Jr. King Center convened the “20th Anniversary March on Washington,” supported by more than 750 organizations. More than 500,000 people attend the March at the Lincoln Memorial, and all of the speakers called on the U.S. Senate and President Reagan to pass the King Holiday.
Congressional Black Caucus member and freshman Representative Katie B. Hall (D-IN), chairman of the subcommittee that had primary jurisdiction over the MLK Holiday Bill, introduced the Dr. King Holiday Bill that later became Public Law 98-399. The House of Representatives passed the bill on August 2, 1983 by a vote of 338-90.
Passage of the bill on the Senate side encountered strong opposition from Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who unleashed a vicious attack on the character of Dr. King, labeling him a Communist. Senator Helms had copies of FBI reports on King delivered to all senators, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) took to the floor of the Senate and stomped the documents, labeling them a “packet of filth.” On October 19, 1983, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 78-22. As enacted, H.R. 3706 is Public Law 98-144, which you can read here.
On November 3, 1983, President Reagan signed the bill into law and it was first observed three years later. In his remarks on the signing of the bill, he noted:
. . . traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, ‘All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘… land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’’
. . .
All right-thinking people, all right-thinking Americans are joined in spirit with us this day as the highest recognition which this nation gives is bestowed upon Martin Luther King, Jr., one who also was the recipient of the highest recognition which the world bestows, the Nobel Peace Prize.”
You can read his entire speech here.
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 last states to join up where Arizona in 1992, New Hampshire in 1999, and Utah in 2000.
There are only two other people in American history that have a national holiday in their honor, George Washington and Christopher Columbus. Martin Luther King Jr. is the only native born United States citizen to have a national holiday in his honor. (Although Washington was born in Virginia, Virginia was still at that time a British colony, and the United States did not yet exist.)