How MLK Day Became a Federal Holiday

Today is MLK Day, the day where we honor one of the greatest Civil Rights leaders in American history and a man almost single-handedly responsible for paving the way for equality for minorities in this country. But have you ever wondered how and when MLK Day become a federal holiday?

Here’s a brief history of how it went down.

The suggestion for an MLK Day came almost immediately after he was assassinated in 1968. Immediately, as in, 4 days later. But there was a whole lot of resistance to the idea. Obviously in the 60’s MLK wasn’t too popular so it didn’t really gain traction at first. But supporters kept pushing for it in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. And even with the country becoming more accepting of black people, resistance to the holiday still persisted for two main reasons. 

First, some people didn’t like the idea of memorializing a person who was considered a political “troublemaker” in his day. Secondly, some people were genuinely concerned about the financial impact of letting all federal employees get off for another holiday. Not to be petty, but financial security was also a big argument for not abolishing slavery. It’s always about the money.  

But in 1973, Illinois became the first state to make MLK Day a state holiday. (Embarrassing fun fact: at first I thought it was really random that Illinois of all places was first since I thought there were like 10 black people there. I expected Jersey or New York to lead the way. But apparently Illinois and New Jersey have the same demographic of black people: 15%. Who knew?)

From 1975-1983 MLK’s wife Coretta Scott King got to work trying to convince Congress to make MLK a federal holiday in all 50 states. But they weren’t having it for the reasons stated above. Then in 1980, Stevie Wonder wrote the song “Happy Birthday” for MLK and it became a smash hit. Its success helped gain support for the holiday and Stevie and Coretta Scott King managed to get a petition with 6 million signatures.

With the support booming and momentum rolling, in 1983, Senate and Congress were both mostly in favor of making MLK Day a federal holiday. But there was still some resistance, namely from a Senator named Jesse Helms who said that MLK shouldn’t be celebrated because he was a Marxist. But eventually President Reagan signed the bill that made MLK a federal holiday to be celebrated on every third Monday of January. The first time it was officially celebrated was in 1986.

You might have also wondered: why isn’t the holiday on MLK’s birthday on January 18th? First of all, because of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 most federal holidays are usually on Mondays(Columbus Day, Washington’s birthday, Labor Day, and Memorial Day). Even Veterans Day was on a Monday for a while before being changed back to November 11th. But secondly, having MLK Day on a Monday allows for families to get together longer on a three-day weekend. Win-win. 

But even though the first official MLK Day was in 1986, it wasn’t fully recognized by the rest of the country until the year 2000. This was partly because of all the push back from the money that would be lost from having another federal holiday. But eventually MLK supporters won out and the rest is history. But to this day, Alabama and Mississippi choose to celebrate MLK Day in conjunction with Robert E. Lee Day.

So that’s how MLK Day became a federal holiday. 

For a really cool video detailing everything you just read check this out right here:


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