How Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday Became a Federal Holiday

Although King's birthday officially became a federal holiday in 1983, it was more than a decade in the making.

The history behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday

Ask nearly anyone off the street and odds are they will know a thing or two about Martin Luther King Jr. Born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, the celebrated civil rights leader is honored each year on the third Monday of January. But despite its namesake’s fame, few people know how or why Martin Luther King Jr. Day became an official part of the American calendar.

Believe it or not, the campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday an annual holiday began only four days after King was assassinated in 1968. Yet it took more than a decade—and millions of Americans joining the effort—before Congress finally approved it. This is the inspiring story of how Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday. Don’t miss these rarely seen photos of Martin Luther King Jr. before his death and his most inspiring quotes.

When is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2022?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day will be observed on Monday, January 17, 2022. Here are the holiday’s observance dates for the next few years:

  • Monday, January 16, 2023
  • Monday, January 15, 2024
  • Monday, January 20, 2025

Since Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday of January, the date changes each year. It won’t fall on King’s actual birthday until 2024.

Who proposed Martin Luther King Jr. Day and why?

So, why do we honor Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday? After King’s assassination, many communities paid tribute to the civil rights leader by naming public buildings, streets, and other landmarks after him. Congress, for its part, considered creating a federal holiday in King’s name as a way to both commemorate his legacy and promote the civil rights movement that he had championed. Representative John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, introduced a bill for the holiday just four days after King was assassinated. At the time, however, there were several conspiracy theories surrounding Martin Luther King Jr.’s death.

Who advocated for a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.?

Everyone from King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to singer Stevie Wonder joined the effort to create a holiday honoring the civil rights leader. Stevie Wonder funded a lobbying office and even released a song about King to raise awareness for the cause. Groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) worked to gather millions of signatures on a petition for the holiday’s creation. Local and national campaigns quickly gained momentum, and in 1983, more than half a million people rallied at the Lincoln Memorial in favor of the holiday.

What had to happen for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be approved, and by whom?

Public support for a holiday in King’s name was overwhelming, but it was up to Congress and the president to pass legislation to make the holiday official. Without enough lawmakers in favor of the holiday, Conyers’s bill was never brought to the floor for a vote. The effort stalled for more than a decade. But during that time, two things were happening that boosted its support: The number of African Americans elected to Congress was growing and millions of Americans were joining the effort. Check out the inspiring stories of ordinary people who changed history.

When was it finally established as a federal holiday?

In the years that followed King’s assassination, many states—including Illinois, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—passed laws to celebrate King’s birthday as a state holiday. Congress first voted to create a national holiday in 1979, but the legislation failed by five votes in the House. Following a heated debate in the Senate, the bill was finally approved by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. Even then, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was met with strong resistance from some states; it wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states recognized King’s birthday as a federal holiday.

What are we intended to do on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to observe it?

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service. Called “a day on, not a day off,” its goal is to encourage Americans to volunteer in their communities, as well as consider a career in public service. The day also serves as a chance to reflect on King’s life and legacy, and many people honor him by working to raise awareness for issues that he supported, such as civil rights and nonviolence.

How do some people traditionally observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

A wide variety of commemorative festivities take place nationwide on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, including:

  • Parades
  • Tree planting ceremonies
  • Free admission to national parks

For many Americans, the holiday is also a call to action, offering an opportunity to carry out the civil rights leader’s teachings in their day-to-day lives. Some people hand out pamphlets and posters about King’s teachings, while others volunteer at local nonprofits. You can also celebrate without leaving your couch with these thought-provoking movies to watch on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Source: AmeriCorps: “MLK Day”

The March On Washington For Jobs And FreedomHulton Archive/Getty Images

11 "Facts" About the Civil Rights Movement That Aren't True

Brooke Nelson
Brooke is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for RD.com.