You would think that making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday would be a given, but it was a complicated road to getting the United States to officially honor the Civil Rights leader. Find out when we started celebrating MLK Day, and how YOU can honor this great man today!
Just a few years after Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s assassination in 1968, members of Congress began campaigning for a national holiday in his honor. In 1979, a controversial bill was proposed in Congress, but wasn’t passed for two reasons: a paid federal holiday could be expensive for the country, and only two other figures in the United States had holidays honoring them — Christopher Columbus and George Washington.
After this, citizens began campaigning hard for the holiday! Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980 for the campaign, and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Over six million people signed a petition asking Congress to pass the holiday, which is currently “the largest petition in favor of an issue in US history,” according to The Nation. Although there was more opposition on the House floor, President Ronald Reagan eventually signed the bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official holiday in 1983. It was to be celebrated on the third Monday in January, around the Civil Rights leader’s birthday — January 15.
The holiday was first celebrated in 1986, but that was on a state-by-state basis. Shockingly, not every state recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday until 1991! Even crazier, not all states designated the day as a paid holiday until 2000; looking at you, South Carolina.
Today, here’s what you can do to celebrate the incredible life and work of Dr. King. All national parks are free on MLK Day, including the 45-mile-long Selma to Montgomery Historic Trail in Alabama where he led the Freedom March, the MLK Memorial in Washington, DC., and his birthplace in Georgia.
You can sit in at a lecture about his work and legacy at the St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site in DC, and visit the spectacular exhibit about his life at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which recently opened in DC. More importantly, the best way you can honor Dr. King today is by doing good, and serving your community. Keep his legacy alive.
HollywoodLifers, how are you honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. today? Tell us in the comments.