The hard-won campaign to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

By Terri J. Huck

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which falls on Jan. 16 this year, is the result of a long, tireless struggle to honor the man who was the chief leader of nonviolent activism during the Civil Rights Movement. The legislative effort to establish a national holiday took 15 years, and full nationwide participation took another 17 years.

Within days of King’s assassination in April 1968, Michigan Rep. John Conyers first introduced legislation calling for a federal holiday; he continued to do so year after year as lawmakers refused to move the bill forward. In the meantime, Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey passed statewide laws to commemorate King.

A bill to honor him with a federal holiday finally moved through Congress in 1979—after multiple congressional appearances by King’s widow, the late Coretta Scott King; pressure from then-President Jimmy Carter; and a grassroots lobbying effort. However, the bill fell five votes short of passage, with opponents arguing that it would be too expensive to give federal employees the day off or that King did not deserve such recognition.

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964

Undeterred, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, established by Coretta Scott King in 1968, sought the support of companies and the public. Stevie Wonder’s 1980 hit song “Happy Birthday” popularized the campaign, and 6 million people signed a petition urging Congress to pass the law, which had been reintroduced by Indiana Rep. Katie Hall.

In 1983, Congress finally approved the bill, and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law. It didn’t take effect until 1986, and even then, many states resisted or combined it with other holidays. It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states officially observed the holiday. Arizona, New Hampshire and Utah were the last three states to recognize it, and South Carolina was the last to designate it as a paid holiday for state employees. Previously, those employees could choose between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and three Confederate holidays.

Coretta Scott King (far left) looks on as President Ronald Reagan signs legislation in 1983 that establishes Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Even today, some states still combine Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday, and less than 40 percent of employers treat it as a paid holiday. However, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated around the world, including in Toronto, Canada, and Hiroshima, Japan. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that urges Americans to spend Martin Luther King Jr. Day in service to others. To learn more or find a volunteer opportunity near you, go to

This article originally appeared in the Vermont Journal.