The making of a holiday: How Martin Luther King Jr. got his day

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The effort to establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday proved nearly as contentious as the civil-rights marches Dr. King led before his assassination on April 4, 1968. It took 15 years before a bill was signed making the third Monday of January an official holiday in celebration of King's life and work. The delay wasn't due to a lack of persistence. The push to create the holiday began early. Four days after King's assassination, Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan introduced legislation to the House. Individual states began enacting King holidays in the early 1970s. Illinois signed the first state King holiday bill in 1973, followed by Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1974. But despite concerted lobbying and petition drives, Congress didn't move forward with legislation. Arguments against the holiday included the cost to taxpayers, concerns over singling King out over other leaders, and accusations that King was a communist. In 1979, the bill made it to a vote in the House only to be defeated. It was defeated again the following year. But pressure to establish a federal holiday intensified with high profile lobbying by King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and performer Stevie Wonder. In November 1983, the King holiday bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The first national Martin Luther King Day was observed in 1986. Resistance to the holiday persisted among some states. In 1989, six states did not observe the holiday. Since then, five of the six have recognized the day (Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Arizona). New Hampshire still does not observe the holiday. The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, based in Atlanta, has these suggestions for community observance of the holiday: Petition school officials to carry out a day of "teach-ins" on the life and work of King. Give awards to citizens or organizations that exemplify the character and work of King. Organize symbolic gestures in which the entire community can participate - fly the American flag, hold candlelight vigils, or organize a peaceful march.

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