King holiday was decades in the making

J. H. Osborne • Jan 20, 2020 at 2:15 PM

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal and state holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. How did it become a holiday?

According to the National Constitution Center’s website:

• King was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta. But the King holiday is marked every year on the third Monday in January.

• Representative John Conyers introduced the first motion to make King’s birthday a federal holiday in 1968, just four days after King’s assassination in Memphis.

• It took 11 years to the federal holiday to come up for a vote on the U.S. House of Representative’s floor in 1979.

• The bill fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority it needed for passage, with a 252-133 count.

• Proponents intensified their efforts. Musician Stevie Wonder helped in 1981 by releasing the song “Happy Birthday” to promote the holiday.

• The King Center kept up its efforts and organized a march on Washington that drew an estimated 500,000 people. Coretta Scott King, along with Wonder, presented a petition signed by 6 million people to House leader Tip O’Neill.

• The House took up the bill in 1983 and it passed by 53 votes. Democrats O’Neill and Jim Wright, along with Republicans Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich, gave speeches supporting the King holiday.

• Getting Senate approval was contentious. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina openly opposed it. At first, Helms introduced a filibuster, and then he presented a 400-page file that accused King of being a communist. Senator Ted Kennedy criticized Helms and Senator Daniel Moynihan called the document “filth” and threw it on the Senate floor.

• The bill ultimately passed the Senate by 12 votes—even South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond voted in favor of the King holiday.

• President Ronald Reagan signed the bill in November 1983. The first federal King holiday was celebrated in 1986.

• By 1986, only 17 states had already adopted it. It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 all states made it a state government holiday.

Source: The National Constitution Center.

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