For those of you home today or whose kids were home today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day seems like it’s been around for a while.
But it’s official day as a national holiday is just 30 years old. How did this day gain more traction than Columbus Day and approach President’s Day in terms of its stature as a national holiday?
It’s a story of concerted marketing and strong feelings. But it was never a “sure thing”, especially in the early days.
After King’s assassination, there were various disparate calls for some sort of special day, but these efforts were neither unified nor successful. Some traction occurred beginning in 1979. There was a bill sent to Congress by Michigan’s Representative John Conyers. In addition, Stevie Wonder wrote and produced a song, which became a video called “Happy Birthday”. (Some of us still remember it!) It was quite catchy: an upbeat birthday message to Martin Luther King, but also a veiled criticism of the lack of the day in his honor.
You can watch a live video from 1980 here:
Amazingly, it was during Republican President Ronald Reagan’s term that the day was again on the table. Reagan’s advisers urged him to consider supporting the day as a way to curry favor with African American voters, from whom he had very little voter support. And so, in the November of 1983, a bill originally sponsored by Indiana Representative Katie Hall was signed into law. This did not sway the votes of many African American voters in the 1984 election, but Reagan was reelected handily anyway.
The law stated that Martin Luther King’s birthday was to be a national holiday, celebrated on the third week of January, beginning in January of 1986. Government offices would be closed. Banks and Wall Street as well as most schools followed.
MLK Day was and is a federal holiday. So this allowed states and municipalities to make their own decisions as to whether to adopt the day as a state or municipal holiday, another paid day off.
An original holdout against adopting the day was Arizona. The state received much adverse publicity, including this Saturday Night Live report from a very young and irreverent “field reporter” Chris Rock who appeared on Weekend Update, then hosted by Kevin Nealon to scold the state. You can watch the video here:
Arizona’s actions spurred a boycott and a threat to not hold the Super Bowl there, so Arizona relented. Slowly, all 50 states not only recognized the day, but included it as a state paid time off holiday.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King, and for those of you who are off, enjoy the day.