How Did Martin Luther King Day Become a Federal Holiday?

How Did Martin Luther King Day Become a Federal Holiday?

On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday, effective Jan. 20, 1986. As a result of this bill, Americans commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday on the third Monday in January, but few Americans are aware of the history of Martin Luther King Day and the long battle to convince Congress to establish this holiday in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

John Conyers and MLK Day

Congressman John Conyers, an African-American Democrat from Michigan, spearheaded the movement to establish MLK Day. Rep. Conyers worked in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and was elected to Congress in 1964, where he championed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Four days after King's assassination in 1968, Conyers introduced a bill that would make Jan. 15 a federal holiday in King's honor. But Congress was unmoved by Conyers' entreaties and though he kept reviving the bill, it kept failing in Congress.

In 1970, Conyers convinced New York's governor and New York City's mayor to commemorate King's birthday, a move that the city of St. Louis emulated in 1971. Other localities followed, but it was not until the 1980s that Congress acted on Conyers' bill. By this time, the congressman had enlisted the help of popular singer Stevie Wonder, who released the song "Happy Birthday" for King in 1981. Conyers also organized marches in support of the holiday in 1982 and 1983.

Congressional Battles Over MLK Day

Conyers was finally successful when he reintroduced the bill in 1983. But even in 1983 support was not unanimous. In the House of Representatives, William Dannemeyer, a Republican from California, led the opposition to the bill, arguing that it was too expensive to create a federal holiday and estimating that it would cost the federal government $225 million annually in lost productivity. Reagan's administration concurred with Dannemeyer's arguments, but the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 for and 90 against.

When the bill reached the Senate, the arguments opposing the bill were less grounded in economics and more reliant on outright racism. Sen. Jesse Helms, a Democrat from North Carolina, held a filibuster against the bill and demanded the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) make public its files on King, asserting that King was a Communist who did not deserve the honor of a holiday. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had investigated King throughout the late 1950s and 1960s at the behest of its chief, J. Edgar Hoover, and had even tried intimidation tactics against King, sending the civil rights leader a note in 1965 that suggested he kill himself to avoid embarrassing personal revelations hitting the media.

King, of course, was not a Communist and had broken no federal laws, but by challenging the status quo, King and the Civil Rights Movement discomfited the Washington establishment. Charges of Communism were a popular way to discredit people who dared speak truth to power during the '50s and '60s, and King's opponents made liberal use of that tactic.

When Helms tried to revive that tactic, Reagan defended him. A reporter asked Reagan about the charge of Communist against King, and Reagan said that Americans would find out in around 35 years, referring to the length of time before any material the FBI gathers on a subject could be released. Reagan later apologized, and a federal judge blocked the release of King's FBI files.

Conservatives in the Senate tried to change the name of the bill to "National Civil Rights Day" as well, but they failed to do so. The bill passed the Senate with a vote of 78 for and 22 against. Reagan capitulated, signing the bill into law.

The First MLK Day

King's wife, Coretta Scott King, chaired the commission responsible for creating the first celebration of King's birthday in 1986. Though she was disappointed at not receiving more support from Reagan's administration, the result included over a week of commemorations beginning on Jan. 11, 1986, and lasting until the holiday itself on Jan. 20. Events were held in cities like Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and featured a tribute at the Georgia State Capitol and the dedication of a bust of King at the U.S. Capitol.

Some Southern states protested the new holiday by including Confederate commemorations on the same day, but by the 1990s the holiday had become established everywhere in the United States.

Reagan's proclamation of the holiday on Jan. 18, 1986, explained the reason for the holiday:

"This year marks the first observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday. It is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded… He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood."

It required a long 15-year fight, but Conyers and his supporters successfully won King national recognition for his service to country and humanity.


  • Campbell, Bebe Moore. "A National Holiday for a King." Black Enterprise. January 1984: 21.
  • Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.
  • Nazel, Joseph. Martin Luther King, Jr. Los Angeles: Holloway House Publishing, 1991.
  • Reagan, Ronald. "Proclamation 5431 -- Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 1986." 18 January 1986.
  • Smitherman, Geneva. Word From the Mother: Language and African Americans. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006.