Archived: Martin Luther King Day: A Day of Service

By Chris Hoenig


The nation honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday that has transformed into a national day of service. But did you know the formal holiday almost never happened

Ideas for a national holiday recognizing the life and importance of the spokesman of the civil-rights movement began shortly after his assassination in 1968. But the first legislation making Dr. King’s birthday a holiday actually failed in Congress in 1979, falling five votes shy of the majority needed. King had not held a public office, keeping some Congressmen from voting in favor of the bill, while others had qualms about the price of paying federal workers to take a day off.

But public momentum for the honor grew. Companies including Coca-Cola put their power behind the movement, donating to the King Center and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow. The American people also joined the call, and Mrs. King presented Congress with the largest public petition in history, more than six million signatures asking to pass the holiday to recognize her late husband.

Opposition still existed in the Senate—including from North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, who called King a communist, and Arizona Republican John McCain—as well as the White House, where President Ronald Reagan was concerned with the costs of a federal holiday. After it passed the House by a 338-90 margin, Reagan signed the bill in the White House Rose Garden on Nov. 2, 1983, but it wasn’t until Jan. 20, 1986, that Martin Luther King Day was observed for the first time.

Under the newly established law, the federal government would close on the third Monday of every January to recognize and honor Dr. King. (While not officially one of the holidays recognized by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Martin Luther King Day follows the same protocol, which calls for it to be observed on a Monday, rather than Dr. King’s actual birthday, Jan. 15.)

Even then, not all 50 states recognized the holiday. Arizona revoked the holiday, but bowed to pressure when the NFL threatened to move the 1993 Super Bowl, which had been awarded to the state, in protest of its lack of recognition. Martin Luther King Day was ultimately reinstated in Arizona in 1990, but not before the NFL moved the Super Bowl to Pasadena, Calif..

New Hampshire didn’t recognize any holiday until 1991, but it wasn’t until 1999 that Civil Rights Day in the state was officially changed to Martin Luther King Day. South Carolina, Virginia and Utah all recognized Martin Luther King Day as its own holiday for the first time in 2000, marking the first time it was observed in all 50 states.

In Mississippi and Alabama, Martin Luther King Day still shares the date with a state holiday recognizing former Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

While not a formal holiday, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated outside of the United States as well. The mayors of Toronto and Hiroshima, Japan, have issued proclamations that honor the date as a day of service and remembrance in those cities.

The holiday transformed nationwide in the mid-1990s after Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, calling on Americans to honor Dr. King with a day of citizen action and volunteer service. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation into law on Aug. 23, 1994. MLKDay.gov hosts a search function to find a service project near you, as well as toolkits to help plan and register your own projects in honor of Dr. King.

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