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How Did MLK Day Become a Federal Holiday?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But just how did MLK Day become a national holiday?

Since the federal holiday's beginning in 1986, Americans have set aside the third Monday in January to reflect on the life and accomplishments of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 85 this year.

But the road to creating MLK Day was not so smooth. In honor of the revered civil rights leader's great accomplishments, here's a look back at how Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday:

King's Death and Petition

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. Not long after his assassination, legal minds began to wonder about a federal holiday.

Congressman John Conyers Jr., who has remained a U.S. representative for Michigan for nearly 50 years, was the first to propose a federal holiday for King. According to the King Center, it was introduced to Congress four days after King's passing.

In 1971, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathered millions of signatures and submitted a petition to Congress to create a federal holiday to honor King.

Legislative Action

More than a decade after King's death, Congress reconsidered an MLK Day bill in 1979, only to have it defeated by five votes on the House floor.

The MLK Day bill which would finally succeed was H.R. 3706. It was introduced in July 1983 and sponsored by Katie Hall, a black congresswoman from Indiana. The bill was later signed into law on November 2, 1983, by President Ronald Reagan, who extolled King as America's "preeminent nonviolent commander," according to the American Presidency Project.

Although King's birthday falls on January 15, the law called for MLK Day to be recognized on the third Monday of every January, beginning in 1986.

State Recognition of MLK Day

While some states had passed legislation to celebrate MLK Day as a state holiday as early as 1973, others refused to recognize the holiday. The King Center reports that 17 states had begun officially celebrating MLK Day in 1986, but that number increased to 44 over the next three years.

Arizona's failure to pass a 1990 voter referendum to make MLK Day a state holiday cost the state the Super Bowl in 1993 -- moving it from Tempe, Arizona to Pasadena, California, reports the Tucson Sentinel. South Carolina was one of the last states to accept MLK Day in 2000 as a paid holiday for state employees, reports The Huffington Post.

All state and federal governments now recognize MLK Day as a holiday, but it has truly been a long road.

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