5 Things You Didn’t Know About Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Giving a day of commemoration to one of the world's most instrumental civil rights leaders whose peaceful words and deeds contributed to a whole new understanding of equality and brotherhood seems like a no-brainer. Martin Luther King Day's history, however, was fraught with controversy and took years just to get on the federal government's official calendars.
And even after the federal government officially recognized MLK Day as a holiday, it took years to get the states to do the same. Eventually both sides recognized Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday and even erected a memorial in Washington, D.C. in his honor, but the history of the holiday makes for just as much of an interesting read as the man whose legacy the day aims to honor. Here is just a sample of MLK Day's storied fall and rise to the nation's calendars.
King's assassination in 1968 on a hotel balcony in Memphis, TN sent a huge shockwave through the civil rights movements as well as the halls of Congress. Congressman John Conyers quickly moved to establish a day to honor the slain minister and civil right visionary by submitting a bill to Congress to commemorate his official holiday every January 15th. Unfortunately, the bill didn't move at all. Conyers resubmitted his legislation through several Congresses until the 1980s, when it began to gain traction through growing public support for the measure.
Among the holiday's many, many supporters was this iconic musician who not only used his status to garner support for the day, but also his music. The lyrics to Wonder's 1980 single 'Happy Birthday' on his 'Hotter Than July' album spoke about the need for a holiday to honor MLK's life and work. It's popularity helped it become an anthem for the movement. Musician Gil-Scott Heron toured with Wonder for 'Hotter Than July' and recalled in his memoir the initiative that Wonder took to make sure the holiday was established, even though time may have forgotten. “Somehow, years later it seems that Stevie's effort as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten,” Heron wrote a year before his passing in 2011. “But it is something that we should all remember. Just as surely as we should remember April 4th, 1968, we should celebrate January 15th. And we should not forget that Stevie remembered.”
As the legislation to establish the holiday grew in popularity, it wasn't without with its detractors. During the 15-year run it took to establish the holiday in the federal legislature, several high-ranking Republicans voted against the bill, including Arizona Senator John McCain and North Carolina Senator John P. East. Helms, with East's help, took the loudest and (some might say lowest) shot at preventing the bill from establishing the holiday. As the bill gained popularity and seemed destined for passage in 1983, the late senator tried to get the FBI to release tapes and investigation files on King's activities and private life compiled at the behest of former director J. Edgar Hoover. In addition, he read from a 300-page document titled “Martin Luther King Jr.: Politics Activities and Associates” on the Senate floor that aimed to establish King's connection to the Communist movement. Helms' comments were met with staunch opposition from both sides of the aisle, including New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who threw Helms' document on the floor and stomped on it during his rebuttal.
Even after President Reagan signed the holiday into law after Congress' veto-proof approval in 1983, some states failed to include the holiday into their schedules or steadfastly refused to acknowledge it. Arizona Governor Evan Mecham vowed to rescind the holiday signed into law by former Governor Bruce Babbit shortly after it became official in 1986 because he deemed it to be “illegally created.” The following year, the St. Louis Cardinals moved to Tempe, Arizona and the National Football League decided to give the failing team a boost after their first dismal season by letting them host Super Bowl XXVII. The MLK Day controversy was bound to put the NFL in the middle of the heat since a boycott was brewing throughout the state until they agreed to recognize the holiday, but NFL officials were assured it would pass by the day of the big game. Mecham fulfilled his promise to cancel the holiday in 1987, but the legislature overturned his measure in 1989. Except, opponents of MLK Day got a ballot initiative that let the voters overturn that legislation. So, The NFL pulled the Super Bowl from Tempe and moved it to Pasadena, California. The NFL returned to Tempe for Super Bowl XXX after legislators recognized the holiday in 1992.
The holiday may have been on the books in the early 1980s, but more than a decade later, some states failed to follow suit. Some states had a “Civil Rights Day” on their calendars and by 1990, only three had no civil rights holiday on the books: Arizona, New Hampshire and Montana. The objections against a holiday for MLK fell under economic concerns or doubt over King's worthiness to merit his own state holiday. By the start of the new millennium, South Carolina was the only state in America to not sanction an official MLK Day celebration, opting instead to give state employees the option of taking off the federal holiday or one of three other Confederate holidays. Governor Jim Hodges signed the official MLK Day bill into law in 2000.