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The History of Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday celebrating the life and legacy of the famous civil rights leader. Set near Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday (January 15th) the holiday occurs yearly on the third Monday of January. While the life and achievements of Dr. King are widely known the holiday itself has an interesting history as well.

The Early History

It did not take long for the idea of holiday celebrating Dr. King to enter public discussion. Four days after King was assassinated in 1968 Michigan Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to establish a commemorative holiday. However, the bill itself would not make it out of congress. Conyers and Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke would again introduce the bill in 1979 for the creation of a holiday. When brought up before Congress it lacked the necessary votes to be passed missing the requirement by five votes. The arguments against the holiday at the time related to the expense an additional federal holiday would bring and that the holiday would be honoring a private citizen and not a holder of public office.  

In the realm of public opinion the idea of Martin Luther King Day enjoyed support. Musician Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” in support of the cause and also in 1981 hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference. A petition to Congress in support of the holiday contained six million signatures, one of the largest petitions in support of an issue in American history.

Legal Establishment As A Holiday

In 1983 establishment of a Martin Luther King Day was again before congress. North Carolina Senators John Porter East and Jesse Helms opposed the holiday on the grounds of King’s overall importance on a national level and King’s political beliefs. Indiana Representative Katie Hall proposed a bill naming Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday and it passed by a vote of 338 to 90. Following this the bill was signed into law by then President Reagan on November 2, 1983. Aside from the creation of the holiday itself the bill also created the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission to oversee the celebration of the holiday and related activities.   

As A Federal Holiday And On The State Level

After being signed into law Martin Luther King Day was first celebrated on January 20, 1986. Although passed as a federal holiday not every state adopted it on the state level (of note 44 states did by 1989). New Hampshire for example replaced the existing holiday of Fast Day with Civil Rights Day in 1991 and in turn renamed the holiday officially to Martin Luther King Day in 1999. Arizona would officially recognize the holiday via a referendum in 1992. In 2000 Utah became the last state to name a holiday after Dr. King renaming their existing Human Rights Day holiday. That same year South Carolina became the last state to make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday for its state employees.       


As the above information shows Martin Luther King Day is a holiday with a rich history in relation to America’s social and political fabric. Its adoption as both a federal holiday and its eventual adoption as a holiday in all 50 states is an excellent example of how government interacts with the wider society it governs.

Stuyvesant Town

If you happen to have the day off work, check out some of this month's January happenings in NYC to spend your free day doing something fun. Also be sure to check out our no fee apartments this month in the Stuyvesant Town community.