Martin Luther King Jr. Day has fallen on the third Monday of every January since 1986. As fate would have it, the opinions of Republican President Ronald Reagan evolved on the issue of MLK being honored with a holiday and that paved the way for just a few more Republicans to support it.
Republicans and some Democrats initially hated the idea of an MLK Day. Today’s unanimous appreciation of MLK’s role in American history belies the political intrigue that clouded and filled the debate when the idea was pitched after he had died. The celebration of MLK is also couched by so much corporatism that you’d be surprised to learn corporate heads hated the idea in the 1970s.
Democrat Representative John Conyers from Michigan introduced the first bill to honor MLK with holiday, just four days after the civil rights champion had been gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. Conyers had very little support because although the man’s death was mourned by a lot of Americans, MLK was not anywhere near a universally liked man. Some of those who even agreed with the moral point he made thought he disturbed the public peace a little too often.
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Conyers’ bill would have died at the level of committee deliberations if lawmakers had not known that labor unions across America, actually supported a holiday, according to William P. Jones, author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses. Labor unions rebelliously told their workers through fliers and at meetings to take a day off on April 4, the day of MLK’s assassination.
The dismantling of unions in America’s capitalist evolution arguably continues unabated but five or six decades ago, unions were much stronger. Lawmakers gave ear to their demands.
But the support Conyers received from labor unions was only good to keep the idea of a holiday in public discourse. It was not until 1979 that Conyers was offered a hand by Edward Brooke, the first African-American popularly elected to the Senate of the United States. Brooke was a Republican, which meant that Conyers had significantly stepped across the aisle.
Reaching across the aisle was not enough too. For lawmakers, two issues outweighed the need for a day to remember MLK. Political scientist Donal Wolfensberger notes that the congresspeople did not think MLK merited a holiday because “the establishment of a public holiday to honor a private citizen would be contrary to our country’s longstanding tradition.”
MLK did not hold public office and he would have been only the third man apart from George Washington, the republic’s first president, and Christopher Columbus, alleged discoverer of the American mainland, to have a holiday named for him. What helped matters too was MLK’s legacy still did not receive positive public backing.
The second reason for withholding their support for an MLK Day was simply to not anger heads of corporate America. To grant a federal holiday would mean workers would be paid for a day they did not work. Congress, mostly Republicans, decided it was too expensive to give MLK a holiday. Reagan, a presidential hopeful in 1979, was also adamant that the cost to businesses was far too big to overlook.
In 1980, Reagan won the presidency but those who wanted a holiday in honor of Dr. King pressed even further. The King Center, fully known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, had been established after his death to defend and promote his legacy. Making sure a federal holiday was commemorated for MLK was The King Center’s earliest preocupation.
The campaign was cultural and economic. The King Center began lobbying corporate America while popular entertainers also chipped in. Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday song was released in honor of MLK IN 1981. Soon enough, six million signatures had been collected across America to force the House to relook at the issue of a federal holiday.
In 1983, the bill to mark a holiday in honor of MLK was passed in Congress. There was still a little more drama in the Senate where the two Republican senators from North Carolina led a dying opposition to the bill. One of the senators even submitted a 300-page document alleging that MLK was a communist who deserved no American honor. That document was thrown on the Senate floor and stomped on by another senator, a Democrat.
The Senate affirmed what the Congress had passed and Reagan signed it into law in 1983. The first holiday was not until January 20, 1986. Still, it was not the whole of the country that respected MLK Day. That would not happen until the year 2000.