The Origins of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Hannah Pinson

On Jan. 20, 2014, the country celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the newest American holiday. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death was forty-five years ago and it took fifteen years to become a national holiday, and even longer than that to be accepted by every state. Now Martin Luther King, Jr., Day is recognized as a day of service on which Americans volunteer and make a difference in their community.


Before Jan. 17, 2000, the first official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be celebrated in America, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day originated when Congress passed the 1994 King Holiday and Service Act. This made the third Monday in January a service day for the entire country. Many people volunteer locally, including Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy students and their families, who took the time to pack snacks for Harvesters on January twentieth. There were many other opportunities for community service in the area and in the rest of the country to commemorate the deeds of Martin Luther King, Jr.


The commemorative holiday began a mere four days after King was assassinated in Tennessee, April 4, 1968. A Democratic congressman from Michigan named John Conyers almost immediately introduced the legislation for the holiday. It was then stalled. Soon after, a petition arose with six million signatures and was sent to Congress. Following this, Conyers continued to subject legislation for the holiday at every legislative session. This time, he worked with a Democratic representative from New York named Shirley Conyers (no relation). Pressure for the holiday rose and finally peaked during civil rights marches in Washington in 1982 and 1983. At this point, the country was even closer to establishing a national Martin Luther King, Jr. day.


The holiday legislation was finally passed in 1983 by Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. The holiday was originally planned to be on January 15, King’s birthday. However, it was believed that this date was too close to other holidays, such as Christmas and New Year’s. Much of the country opposed the proposed timing of the holiday, which became a reason not to pass the legislation. It was decided to move the holiday to the third Monday in January. Still, some states resisted.


According to Shmuel Ross and David Johnson of, the principal reason certain states did not want to celebrate the MLK holiday was that “some opponents said King did not deserve his own holiday—contending that the entire civil rights movement rather than one individual, however instrumental, should be honored.”  It was agreed that he was influential in the country, however these states wanted a day to celebrate the entire civil rights movement.


Utah and South Carolina were the last states to recognize the day as a paid holiday and by its modern name. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day took many years to become what it is today. However, after persistence and hard work, this country has come to agree on what this day means. This day stands for the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s courage and strength, and community.