Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! How are you celebrating? Did you sleep in? Make yourself a three-course breakfast? Or, did you suddenly remember your New Year’s resolution to get fit and find yourself this morning on a treadmill realizing how much you despise cardio?
No matter how you celebrate this federal holiday, it is important to remember this day’s purpose. MLK Day honors the accomplishments and contributions of Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement unquestionably changed this country and its people for the better.
But similar to the man himself, MLK Day has a complicated history. The bill creating MLK Day was signed into law by Ronald Reagan on Nov. 2, 1983. However, efforts to memorialize Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy began long before that. Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation to make MLK’s birthday a holiday. Conyers’ bill missed becoming law in November 1979, losing by just five votes in the House. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, continued to fight to recognize her husband, testifying before Congress several times before the bill finally passed in the House.
The bill encountered additional challenges in the Senate. N.C. Senator Jesse Helms led an opposition campaign against the bill, citing King’s alleged marital indiscretions and supposed ties to communism as dishonorable qualities not worth the recognition of a federal holiday. Helms went so far as to read a paper on the Senate floor titled: “Martin Luther King Jr: Political Activities and Associations”, which was accompanied by an additional 300 pages of text detailing King’s communist connections. Helm’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but they are an important reminder of the enduring potency of racism in our country’s history and culture.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first celebrated in 1986. But even then, only 27 states and Washington D.C. officially recognized the holiday. It was only in 2000 that all 50 states officially recognized and celebrated the federal holiday for the first time.