The Fight for Martin Luther King Day

By Cara Arleen Noel 

JANUARY 15, 2021
MLK portrait banner copy.jpg
Stevie Wonder - Happy Birthday

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia on 15th of January, 1929. He was a Baptist minister who became the most visible and iconic leader in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination on April 4th, 1968.  King advanced civil rights through nonviolent protests, inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi. He was the son of early civil rights activist Martin Luther King Sr..


After graduating from college with a doctorate degree in theology, King became a pastor in Alabama. He led a wave of peaceful protests that eventually changed many laws dealing with the equality of African Americans. King gave hundreds of moving and inspirational speeches across the country, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

April 8, 1968, just four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) introduced the first bill to establish January 15th, King’s birthday, as a Federal holiday. 

Conyers relentlessly persisted year after year, introducing to Congress the same bill again and again, gathering cosponsors along the way, until his persistence paid off.

The tide finally turned in the early 1980s. By then, the Congressional Black Caucus had collected six million signatures in support of a federal holiday in honour of King.  Stevie Wonder wrote a hit song, “Happy Birthday,” about King, which drove a great rise of public support for the holiday. And in 1983, as civil rights veterans gathered in Washington to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, King’s “I have a Dream” speech, and the 15th anniversary of his murder, a change took place.


November 2nd, 1983 President Ronald Reagan, signed the legislation.  The bill passed. Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday to be observed on the third Monday in January.

It took 15 years of fighting for Marin Luther King Day to be declared a national holiday.

The first federal holiday was celebrated in 1986, but it wasn’t until 2000 that every state in the Union finally observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Still today, some States celebrate the holiday in conjunction with a celebration of Confederate figures.

This is perhaps a reflection of how far America remains from any semblance of racial equality.

It’s 2021.  Hard to believe that racism still exists. That said, there is hope as a younger and more dynamic generation rises, focusing on making the world a better place, remembering King, not only for his commitment to the cause but also for his profound and inspirational speeches that move and empower so many, to keep the dream alive.