Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) came at a turbulent time in American history. Following his assassination, major civil rights legislation was passed, but there were those who felt that MLK deserved more recognition.

Labor unions were the first group to propose that a federal holiday be established in recognition of MLK’s efforts toward assuring that all Americans would have the rights spelled out in the U.S. Constitution.

It was a Democratic Representative and Republican Senator who introduced the bill designating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The significance of a White Representative and an African-American Senator from opposing parties was symbolic.

The first time the bill was voted on in 1979, it was rejected. The arguments used to defeat the bill were its cost and the fact that federal holidays rarely were named for a person. The real reason for the rejection was opposition from members of Congress who had racist tendencies.

When Ronald Regan became President, the passage of a bill honoring MLK with a federal holiday seemed remote. Corporate support and the general public led to a groundswell of support that few politicians could oppose. Six million signatures were gathered on a petition and presented to Congress, urging action. That was the largest petition in American history.

The U.S. House passed the bill on August 2, 1983, by a vote of 338-90 and the U.S. Senate passed the bill on October 18, 1983, by a vote of 78-22. President Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2, 1983. While President Reagan opposed the bill, the support in Congress was strong enough to override a veto.

The first observance of the holiday was on January 20, 1986. Not every state followed the federal government’s observance until 1991 when New Hampshire passed legislation to follow the federal government. Even then not all states granted state employees pay on MLK Day. South Carolina was the last state to pay its workers on MLK Day.

MLK Day has since taken on a different focus as one of a national day of service. Other countries have also recognized MLK Day and its message of civil justice and equality through peaceful means. A majority of employers estimated at 55% do not give employees time off for MLK Day. While MLK Day is a symbol of a dream for America, there is still a reluctance to accept that dream.

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“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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