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The history behind Martin Luther King Jr. Day

  • By Laurel Huster
  • |
  • Jan. 18, 2021 - 1:25 PM

The history behind Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Each year on the third Monday of January, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is observed in the U.S. to commemorate the civil rights leader’s birthday.

The concept of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was originally promoted by labor unions. After King’s death, U.S. Rep. John Conyers and U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday, according to .

The bill was first voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979; however, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage. Two of the main arguments from opponents were that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive, and that a holiday to honor a private citizen would be contrary to longstanding tradition, as King never held public office. At the time, only two other figures had national holidays honoring them, George Washington and Christopher Columbus.

Soon after, the King Center looked for support from the corporate community and the public. Stevie Wonder released the single “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Six million people signed a petition for Congress to pass the law, and is considered the largest petition in favor of an issue in U.S. history, according to .

President Ronald Reagan originally opposed the holiday because of cost concerns. But on Nov. 2, 1983, Reagan signed a bill, proposed by Rep. Katie Hall, to create a federal holiday honoring King.

The holiday was observed for the first time on Jan. 20, 1986. It’s observed on the third Monday of January rather than directly on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Jan. 15, to follow the guidelines of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.

Each year, The King Center in Atlanta leads the nationwide observance of the national holiday commemorating King’s birthday. The theme for this year’s observance is “The Urgency of Creating the Beloved Community!”

The King Center will host several virtual events Jan. 14-18 in observance of MLK Day. More information about the events can be found at .

Here are five lesser known facts about King from .

  • His birth name was Michael. The civil rights leader was given the name Michael King Jr. at birth. Later, his father changed his own name as well as of his son to Martin Luther, after the Protestant Reformation leader.
  • King started college at the age of 15. He skipped grades 9 and 12, and enrolled at Morehouse College in 1944.
  • “I Have a Dream” was not his first speech. Six years before his iconic speech at the Lincoln Memorial, King spoke during the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957.
  • King was imprisoned a lot. According to the King Center, he went to jail 29 times.
  • His last public speech foreshadowed his death. In his last speech the night before he was assassinated, he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now, I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”