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MLK Day – How it came to be

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Laura Marti – January 6, 2021

In her article, As You Prepare to Celebrate Dr. King – Ideas for Moving Beyond the Dream Lesson, Dr. Tehia Starker Glass reminds us that there is so much more to Dr. King than his popularized ‘I Have A Dream‘ speech. One idea proposed by Dr. Glass, that piqued my interest right away is to research how we came to have a federal holiday honoring Dr. King — a civilian. Here is some of what I learned.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, located just off the National Mall in Washington D.C., Source: https://www.nps.gov/

Every year on the third Monday of January, we remember and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But did you know that establishing a national holiday to honor the civil rights hero was an uphill battle that lasted decades?

Rep. John Conyers, a Democratic congressman from Michigan, introduced legislation to commemorate King’s legacy with a national holiday just four days after King’s assassination in April 1968. But Congress was unmoved, the bill failed, and Conyers continued to fight for the holiday, re-proposing the bill year after year, Congress after Congress.

Three years after Rep. Conyers’ first attempt to establish a King holiday, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gave Congress a petition with around 3 million signatures in favor of a federal King holiday.

Corretta Scott King looks on as President Reagan signs Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law in the White House’s Rose Garden, Source: https://www.historicamerica.org/

Black politicians, activists, organizers and leaders persisted. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, urged Congress with speeches, rallies and campaigns. Recording artists, Stevie Wonder released and performed a song to drive the movement forward. As described in Montgomery Advisor, Stevie Wonder knew his song would make an impact:

In the summer of 1979, Stevie Wonder called Coretta Scott King to tell her about a dream he had.  “I said to her, you know, ‘I had a dream about this song. And I imagined in this dream I was doing this song. We were marching, too, with petition signs to make for Dr. King’s birthday to become a national holiday,’” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2011.


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow was excited, but doubtful. The song in question was Wonder’s 1980 release “Happy Birthday,” now lovingly known to African Americans as the Black version of the traditional song.  


“I wish you luck,” Scott King replied. “We’re in a time where I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Wonder recounted.

“I said, ‘Well, no, I really believe it will.’” 

Stevie Wonder was right. His 1980 single played a significant role in the creation of Martin Luther King Day—the first national holiday honoring a Black American.

Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder,Source: https://www.historicamerica.org/

A federal holiday honoring King would be the first of its kind for a civilian, which many in Congress argued would go against American tradition. Over the decades following his assassination, King was still seen by the American public as a “trouble-maker” and “agitator.” But largely owing to years of persistent advocacy from Black communities across the country, the MLK holiday was finally established on a national level.

Happy Birthday to You, Martin Luther King (Stevie Wonder & Diana Ross)

Laura Martí is Content Creator and Resource Curator for Brownicity. Trained as a microbiologist and currently a wife and mother of four, she has been on an antiracism journey since the death of Trayvon Martin. She shares from her own learning with the goal of educating others and lifting up the dignity of every person.