In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

The 1980s: MLK Gets a Holiday

Hands-down, during the 1980s, the most noteworthy event related to the King legacy was the establishment of the King holiday. This milestone was not easily accomplished; it took 15 years to bring to fruition. Work began only four days after Dr. King's assassination, when Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation providing for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday.

By 1975, several states, including Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, had enacted statewide holidays in honor of King. However, according to the King Center, it wasn't until four years later, in 1979, that the King Holiday bill finally began to move through congressional committees. This was in large part due to the urgings of President Jimmy Carter.

Through the years, Coretta Scott King worked tirelessly in support of the King holiday. Her efforts finally garnered much-earned success: In August of 1983, the House of Representatives passed the King Holiday Bill. A few months later, on October 19th, the bill was also passed by the U.S. Senate. On November 3, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill, thereby establishing the third Monday in January as the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday.

The first national Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday was observed on January 20, 1986. At that time, only 17 states had official King holidays. Within three years, that number grew to 44. But it wasn't until June 7, 1999, when Governor Jean Shaheen of New Hampshire signed legislation for the King Holiday, that every U.S. state was on board.