In 1968, American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed outside his motel room. Four days later, a congressman proposed a federal holiday honoring King. It was to be a holiday celebrating peace.
Who could object to such a proposal?
Many people, it turned out. The struggle to approve Martin Luther King Day took more than 15 years. And it ended with a very unlikely lawmaker: Ronald Reagan, one of America’s most conservative presidents.
Objections to the King holiday
In King’s famous 1963 speech in Washington, D.C., he described his dream for racial unity in the United States. In one line, King said he hoped “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
The speech helped create King’s public image as a seeker of justice and equality. He based the movement on non-violent resistance, leading large peaceful protests.
Among other things, King’s activism helped end laws that separated black and white Americans.
But people who objected to King’s message – or to King himself –called him a troublemaker, communist and racist. For years after his death, most lawmakers would not consider a proposed bill to make King’s birthday a federal holiday.
Finally, in 1979, after ten years of petitions from millions of citizens, lawmakers discussed the idea of a King holiday in an official hearing.
Author David Chappell writes about some of the objections in his book “Waking from the Dream.”
Chappell reports that one opponent said King used peaceful protests to make others so angry they had to react violently.
Another claimed communist groups were often asked to raise money for King.
A third asserted that King wanted government programs to support blacks over whites.
And many opponents questioned whether King deserved the same respect as George Washington, the nation’s first president who is honored with a federal holiday.
The bill did not pass.
But wait, how about…?
Some lawmakers proposed alternative ideas. How about a statue of King in the Capitol building? While the Capitol included more than 600 works of art at the end of the 1970s, only two featured black Americans.
Others suggested a day somewhat less than a federal holiday. Why not a “commemoration” of King’s birthday on the third Sunday of January? A more informal Sunday commemoration cost less than giving federal workers a paid weekday off, they said.
King holiday supporters agreed to a statue of King in the Capitol. But they insisted that the civil rights leader also deserved the full respect of a national holiday.
One supporter, musician Steven Wonder, even released a hit song celebrating King’s work and criticizing those who opposed a holiday. The song was called “Happy Birthday.”
Two years later, Wonder – along with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King – presented Congress with the signatures of more than 6 million people supporting the King Holiday.
In 1983, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate officially discussed the King holiday again. The timing was surprising because conservative Republican Party candidate Ronald Reagan had recently been elected president. His party also controlled the Senate. Reagan had said publicly he did not support the King holiday proposal.
In addition, the U.S. economy was struggling. Lawmakers were reluctant to agree to the cost of another holiday.
But American culture had also changed. Author David Chappell says that in the early 1980s, the arguments against King were not as effective as they once were. Many voters no longer responded positively to opponents’ charges that King incited violence, was linked to communists, or supported racial division.
Even some conservative lawmakers – especially those with large African-American populations in their districts – had slowly changed their position on the issue.
By the end of that year, the bill establishing the King holiday passed both the House and the Senate. It went to the president to sign.
Reagan and King
Earlier in his career, Reagan had praised King. In the 1960s, the future president had called King “a great leader and teacher.” Reagan had said King symbolized “courage, sacrifice, and the tireless pursuit of justice.”
Two years into his presidency, Reagan’s respect for King seemed to have returned. In January of 1983, Reagan noted that he and King did not share political philosophies. But, Reagan said, the two men shared “a deep belief in freedom and justice under God.”
Several months later, Reagan communicated his support for a day honoring King—although, he did not say exactly why he changed his mind.
On November 2, 1983, Ronald Reagan signed the legislation establishing the third Monday of every January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday.
Even though the holiday rarely falls on King’s actual birthday—January 15—it permits public school students and federal workers a three-day weekend to relax, spend time with loved ones, or perform community service.