“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just three people hold the distinction of having a U.S. national holiday observed in their honor: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is recognized on the third Monday in January each year (near his Jan. 15 birthday) to honor his legacy in fighting for civil rights. The effort to create a national holiday was a massive struggle, one that required the same commitment as the movement to guarantee the rights of all Americans: relentless persistence, community organizing and long-term determination.
King, whose work continues to inspire generations of leaders, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. Legislation designating the federal holiday in his honor wouldn’t get passed for another 15 years, and the day wasn’t officially commemorated until 1986. The battle for universal recognition of the holiday in the U.S. still isn’t over.
Here’s a timeline of events that led to the MLK holiday being established:
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta.
Began his studies at Morehouse College at the age of 15.
King marries Coretta Scott at her parent’s home in Alabama.
Led the Montgomery bus boycott based on the experience of Rosa Parks.
King is awarded his doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was established by King to train leaders for the future of the civil rights movement.
In Albany, Georgia, a movement led by the desegregation coalition (of the SCLC) was held. King was a participant and was arrested with other protestors. He refused bail and release hoping for the change of segregation policies of the city.
King participated in a sit-in demonstration held by Black college students in protest over lunch counter segregation of the races.
King writes his famous Letter from Birmingham jail after being arrested.
A peaceful demonstration was held at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, demanding equality of justice for all Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream.” speech at this event.
King delivers the eulogy at the funerals of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Dianne Wesley, three of the four children that were killed during the Sept. 15 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, was passed. It is considered one of the crowning legislative achievements of the civil rights movement.
King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on De. 10, in Oslo, Norway.
King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, in Memphis Tennessee, by sniper, James Earl Ray. Riots broke out across the nation.
Four days after King’s death Michigan Democrat Congressman John Conyers introduced the first legislation for a holiday to commemorate the slain civil rights leader.
In an act of disobedience 1,200 automotive workers in North Tarrytown, New York, stayed home in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday on Jan. 15. Suspensions were given to 60 workers with many more threatened with disciplinary actions.
Labor unions began to negotiate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday in contract negotiations.
Following the failure of the bill, a petition endorsing the holiday containing 6 million names had been submitted to Congress. Opposition to the holiday held two main arguments; one was that a paid holiday for federal employees was too expensive and second that honoring a private citizen would be against American holiday tradition (King had never held a public office).
Congressman Conyers and New York Democrat Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm began to resubmit legislation for a MLK holiday every legislative session.
The first state to adopt Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday was Illinois.
The Holiday bill came up for a vote, but died by five votes.
Performer Stevie Wonder released his single “Happy Birthday” to make the public more aware of the movement for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday.
Six workers are fired from Todd Shipyards, in Seattle, in two separate incidences for distributing pamphlets supporting the holiday.
Opposition to the holiday considered King’s birthday too close to Christmas and New Year’s Day. A Compromise sets the holiday to the third Monday in January and the bill proposed by Katie Hall of Indiana passes.
President Ronald Reagan signed the MLK Day bill into law on Nov. 2, while in the White House Rose Garden.
The Washington State Legislature passes a state school holiday on Feb. 24.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day goes into effect being nationally observed on Jan. 20 for the first time. The law creating MLK Day also established a Federal Holiday Commission the same year.
Evan Mecham, the new governor of Arizona, makes his first act in office; the rescinding of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The act sets off a tourist boycott of the state of Arizona.
Coretta Scott King was appointed a life-time member, of the newly created Federal Holiday Commission, by President George H. W. Bush in May.
In all, 44 states have adopted Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is recognized, even if under a different name and not always as a paid state holiday, in all 50 states by 1993.
New Hampshire changed Civil Rights Day naming it Martin Luther King Jr. Day, becoming the last state to adopt the holiday as a paid State Holiday.
Utah is the last state to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by name, changing it from Human Rights Day.
South Carolina is the last state to make Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a paid state holiday for all state employees. Before this individual state employees were able to choose to celebrate of 4 holidays; MLK Day or 3 Confederate associated holidays. In 2000 all 50 states recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by its name and observed on the third Monday of January.