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.

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 more than a decade passed—and millions of Americans joined 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.

Who proposed it and why?

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 King?

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 it 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 U.S. 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 that day to observe it?

For the past 25 years, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been 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. Get in the holiday spirit for yourself with these inspirational quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do some people traditionally observe it?

A wide variety of commemorative festivities take place nationwide on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, including parades, tree planting ceremonies, and even 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.

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Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a researcher at PBS FRONTLINE in Boston, Massachusetts, and writes regularly about travel, health, and culture news for Reader’s Digest. Previously she was a staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her articles have also appeared on MSN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance, among other sites. She earned a BA in international relations from Hendrix College. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeTNelson.