In this April 3, 1968, file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed on the third Monday in January every year, and while many people know the day is in recognition of King's birthday, not many are familiar with how the day became a holiday. Like, why do we celebrate it on a Monday and what was Stevie Wonder's role?
Here’s a rundown of how Martin Luther King, Jr., day came to be a federal holiday:
Plans were underway to designate a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. just four days after his assassination. But the holiday didn't become a reality until more than a decade later.
On April 8, 1968, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced legislation for a federal holiday, according to The King Center.
The next year, Jan. 15, 1969, annual ceremonies commemorating King's birthday were launched by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in Atlanta. They called for nationwide ceremonies and began working to gain support for the holiday.
In the 1970s, support for a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday grew. Several states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut become the first states to enact statewide King holidays, but Congress failed to act on a national level, according to the King Center.
"The campaign to get the holiday started almost immediately after he was killed, and people worked on it for a long time before it happened,” said Michael Honey, professor of humanities at University of Washington, Tacoma. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter called on Congress to vote on the King Holiday Bill. Not everyone was on board and the bill was defeated by five votes in the House in November of 1979.
While the nation recognizes King as an "icon for democracy" today, in the 1960s and 70s he was still a controversial figure, according to Honey, who wrote Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign.
“This was the first holiday around a national figure who is not a president, and who is African American,” Honey said. “Many in Congress did not want to recognize an African American that was thought of as a troublemaker by some in his day.”
Despite years of setbacks, King’s widow, Coretta King Scott, continued to fight for approval of the holiday and testified before Congress multiple times.
Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., embraces singer Stevie Wonder during a celebration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., Nov. 3, 1983.(Photo: AP)
So, where does Stevie Wonder come into play?
Following the defeat of the bill, Stevie Wonder released Happy Birthday, in support of enacting a national Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, according to the King Center.
The song became a hit, and in the early 1980s, Wonder worked with Coretta Scott King to gain support for the national holiday, according to the King Center.
In 1982, King and Wonder delivered a petition with 6 million signatures in favor of the holiday to the Speaker of the House.
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So, when did Martin Luther King day become a holiday?
On Nov. 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill marking the third Monday of every January, as Martin Luther King, Jr., day, according to the center. The holiday was to begin in 1986.
In January 1986, the first national Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday was observed. According to the center, by this time 17 states had already enacted state King holidays.
If King's birthday is Jan. 15, why is MLK day always on the third Monday in January?
You can thank the Uniform Monday Holiday Act for that, according to the Department of Labor. The bill was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, and designated that three federal holidays — Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Washington's birthday — would fall on Monday, according to the bill. It also recognized Columbus Day as a federal holiday.
The act was meant to "enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together," and allow federal employees time to travel, Johnson said in a 1968 statement.
So, while King's birthday is Friday, Jan.15, this year, it is celebrated like other floating holidays under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act.
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