On April 4, 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin’s bullet. Soon after the civil rights icon’s death, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced legislation seeking to make Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, a federal holiday. But nothing came to pass.
Even in 1971, after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – which Dr. King headed until his death – presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting a federal holiday, nothing happened.
Soon, individual states – including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut – began to pass their own bills proclaiming January 15 a state holiday. But still, no federal holiday.
Then, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter vowed to support the formation of a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an action that reenergized Coretta Scott King, the widow of the slain civil rights leader. Coretta organized a nationwide lobby to support the bill. Still, the Conyers’ King-holiday bill was defeated in the House (by just 5 votes). But Coretta continued to fight for her late husband, testifying before Congress several times and mobilizing governors, mayors, and city council members across the country to make the passage of a King-holiday bill part of their agenda. But still, no federal holiday.
In 1980, singer Stevie Wonder joined the cause. He and Coretta presented a second petition to Congress, this one containing more than 6 million signatures in support of a federal holiday. Despite strong opposition, both the House and the Senate passed the bill. And on November 2, 1983 – 15 years after Dr. King’s death – President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law.
“This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday,” said Coretta Scott King.
The first official Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed on the third Monday of January 1986. However, it was not until 2000, 17 years after the bill was signed into law, that the last state – South Carolina – signed a bill recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.
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