History of a National Holiday


Stylized icon of civil rights leader who hailed from Atlanta. (Image by Hilary Coles.)


This month Americans celebrate the annual Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday in honor of the At-lanta-born heroic spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement. The commemoration is a “floating holiday”— held on the third Monday in January — to mark King’s Jan. 15, 1929 birth. The campaign for an official observance began soon after King died from an assassin’s bullet in 1968.


There was, for nearly 20 years, stiff resistance to the MLK Jr. Holiday. Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina with his 1983 filibuster was the most determined political detractor. Turning points for accep-tance of the holiday were when the King Center in Atlanta began to rally broad support and musician Ste-vie Wonder released his pro-holiday song “Happy Birthday.” President Ronald Reagan had initially op-posed the holiday bill but signed it into law in 1986.


The National MLK Jr. Day of Service, started in 1994 in the President Bill Clinton era, was the idea of Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Atlanta congressmen John Lewis, who had worked in the movement with King. This new emphasis has transformed the MLK Jr. Holiday for some citizens by chal-lenging them to have a day of “hands on” active volunteer service. Hometown News wishes to all a meaningful and happy MLK Jr. Day!


Dr. Paul Hudson, historian at Georgia Perimeter College, writes stories for Hometown News.

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