April 8, 1968. President Lyndon Johnson had cancelled his trip to Hawaii, where he was going to meet with military leaders about Vietnam. Instead he had more pressing matters. People were rioting in cities across the country. When the riots were over, entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and cities were comparing their casualty lists.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a civil rights leader and pastor who was committed to social change through non-violent civil disobedience, had been killed by an assassin’s bullet in a motel room in Memphis, Tennessee.
Amidst this tension, unrest, and uncertainty (it would take another two months before James Earl Ray was captured in London), Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill in the House proposing that King’s birthday—January 15—should be a federal holiday.
It never passed that year. In fact, it would take another fifteen years for the federal government to make it a holiday in the face of some strong opposition. In the early 1970s the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—King’s organization—submitted to Congress a petition bearing millions of signatures asking for action on declaring King’s birthday a federal holiday or day of remembrance. Congress took no action.
Throughout that decade organizers, politicians, and leaders submitted proposals for the holiday each and every legislative session. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, lead a highly organized push in the Congress and in State legislatures to honor her late husband with the holiday. Conyers organized marches and parades in major cities. In 1980, Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday” became the rallying cry for the holiday. Some states slowly started to make King’s birthday a statewide holiday. The first was Illinois in 1973.
But not Congress.
Opponents argued that it was too expensive to have a paid holiday. President Reagan’s administration appeared to have agreed with that argument, but it passed in the House anyways. Then things got really ugly in the Senate.
Jesse Helms of North Carolina tried to filibuster the holiday. He argued that King was devoted to “action-oriented Marxism” and branded him a communist who did not deserve a holiday. He urged the FBI to release its file on King.
The FBI never did release the file and the filibuster went nowhere. Even President Reagan changed his tune and signed the bill into law in 1983. The first observed holiday was slated for 1986. The only other person to have a federally-observed birthday is George Washington.
Getting some States to observe the holiday has taken even longer. When the day was first observed in ’86, only seventeen states had it as a state holiday. Arizona’s governor wanted to join the other states after it became a federal holiday in 1986, so he declared it one. After he left office, however, the new governor rescinded it.
This touched off a firestorm. Throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the ‘90s, Arizona simply failed to acknowledge MLK Day as a holiday. Bands like U2 added Arizona (along with South Africa) to the list of places that they would not perform. The NFL pulled out of Tempe for the Super Bowl slated for 1993. The NCAA refused to hold any of its basketball games for the big national tournament in the Grand Canyon State. After losing millions in revenue, Arizona did an about face and made Martin Luther King Day a holiday in 1992.
Other states had different tactics. Virginia started acknowledging King’s birthday soon after it became a federal holiday. But along with King, it combined the holiday with a much older state holiday: Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson Day. Yes, Virginia had Lee-Jackson-King Day, a day commemorating two Confederate generals who led armies in defense of slavery and the civil rights leader fighting against racial discrimination at the same.
In 2000 the days were separated so now in Virginia, Friday is a holiday for the Confederate generals and Monday for King. Southern states took the lead from Virginia and started recognizing Robert E. Lee’s birthday alongside King. The practice still continues to this day, but not here.
Governor John Waihee proclaimed Hawaii’s first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 16, 1989. The State also founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Coalition, which encourages us to remember and celebrate the slain leader, but also to act to promote social change and equality through non-violent means. Hawaii is a multi-ethnic society, but it’s certainly not immune to discrimination and inequality.Monday is a good day to start working to end that. After all, it is a holiday.