How We Got MLK Day and Who Stood in the Way


Martin Luther King, Jr. famously fought long and hard for racial equality. So perhaps it’s fitting that it took the efforts of several Americans more than 30 years to establish a holiday in his honor.

Here are some of MLK Day’s most prominent champions and adversaries—including John McCain, Stevie Wonder, and Ronald Reagan.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Click here to see more Mother Jones slideshows.

1968: Four days after MLK is assassinated in Memphis, Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, introduces legislation in the House to establish a holiday in his honor.

 

1968: Sen. Edward Brooke (R-MA), the first African-American Senator elected by popular vote, introduces legislation to the Senate.

1969-1983: Conyers and Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) reintroduce legislation for a holiday in every single session of the House—for a total of 15 years.

 

1973: Illinois becomes the first state to authorize a statewide holiday (Massachusetts and Connecticut follow suit the next year). The legislation is sponsored by Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago.

 

1979: Fifty years after MLK’s birth, his widow Coretta Scott King (pictured) and President Jimmy Carter breathe new life into the federal fight for a day in his honor. Inspired by Carter’s public support for legislation, Coretta organizes a nationwide citizen’s lobby and gathers 300,000 petition signatures. Nonetheless, a bill is again defeated in the House—but by only 5 votes.

 

1980: The cause gets its first celebrity advocate in the form of Stevie Wonder, who releases the song “Happy Birthday” (Sample lyric: “I just never understood/How a man who died for good/Could not have a day that would/Be set aside for his recognition.”)

Two years later, Stevie and Coretta present a petition with 6 million signatures to Congress. It is the largest petition in favor of an issue in US history.

1983: The House finally passes legislation—sponsored by Conyers and Rep. Katie Hall (D-IN)—by a decisive margin of 338-90.

 

1983: Among the nay voters on the House bill: John McCain, who later issues a mea culpa on the presidential campaign trail.

1983: Meanwhile, two other Republican Senators—North Carolina’s John P. East and Jesse Helms (pictured)—do their best to defeat legislation in the Senate. Their tactics include dwelling on King’s alleged sexual dalliances and presenting a paper accusing him of Communist connections (Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) famously responds to the latter by throwing it on the Senate floor, stomping on it, and calling it a “packet of filth.”)

 

1983: Despite the efforts of East and Helms, a bill to establish a holiday—sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA)—passes the Senate 78-22. Ronald Reagan (pictured), who initially opposed the legislation, signs it into law.

 

1990: In protest over Arizona refusing to formally adopt the holiday, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue moves the Super Bowl location from Tempe to Pasadena, California (two years later, the state finally observes the holiday, and they get hosting rights back in 1996).

 

2000: South Carolina Governor Jim Hodges (pictured) signs legislation to make MLK Day a paid holiday, making his state the last to do so; previously, residents could choose to celebrate that or one of three Confederate holidays.

The same year, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore votes to establish MLK Day a stand-alone holiday, instead of grouping it with Jackson-Lee Day—a commemoration for Confederate generals.

And Utah Governor Michael O. Leavitt changes the day from Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Day to just Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

 

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.