The 15 Year Battle for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

It took monumental effort to bring about the celebration we all know today, but Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King had some powerful allies.

On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law, designating the third Monday in January a federal holiday in observance of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The legislation to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first introduced just four days after his assassination on April 4, 1968. Still, it would take 15 years of persistence by civil rights activists for the holiday to be approved by the federal government and an additional 17 years for it to be recognized in all 50 states. Today, it is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service to encourage all Americans to volunteer and improve their communities.

Despite the national fervor inspired by King's death, the bill to create a holiday in his honor languished for years with limited congressional support. However, Democratic Michigan Congressman, John Conyers, who first proposed the bill on April 8, 1968, was not deterred. He continued to reintroduce the legislation every year with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, which Conyers helped found.

In 1979, on the 50th anniversary of King’s birth, the bill finally came to a vote in the House. However, even with a petition of 300,000 signatures in support, the backing of President Jimmy Carter, and testimonials from King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, the bill still was rejected by five votes in the House. Republican Missouri Congressman Gene Taylor led the opposition, which cited the costs of an additional federal holiday and traditions which exclude private citizens from receiving recognition with public holidays named in their honor.

Even though it failed to pass in the House, public support for the bill continued to grow, in no small part due to musician Stevie Wonder. The Motown singer and songwriter’s 1980 album “Hotter Than July” featured the song “Happy Birthday,” which served as an ode to King's vision and a rallying cry for recognition of his achievements with a national holiday.

Wonder continued to spread his message with regular appearances alongside Coretta Scott King at rallies. He also capped a four-month tour with a benefit concert on the National Mall, where King delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech 18 years earlier.

So how did Stevie Wonder help to make Dr. King's birthday became the National Holiday we celebrate today? Click here to find out from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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