Every third Monday of January, the United States observes a holiday to honor the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1994 Congress passed a bill to dedicate the national holiday as a national day of service. The King Holiday and Service Act was introduced by Congressman John Lewis and Senator Harris Wofford, both of whom had worked alongside Dr. King in civil rights activism. Since then, it has become a day to remember Dr. King’s work and, as importantly, to continue on the path towards justice he paved for us.
Here we highlight stories about the holiday itself as well as different examples of service.
How Did Martin Luther King Jr. Get a Holiday?
Origin of Everything explores how the national holiday came about, including some reasons for the delayed adoption of the holiday across all 50 states.
The New Negro – The Open Mind (1957)
Listen to Reverend Dr. King speak in depth about the quest and urgency of a just society. This episode of The Open Mind was broadcast live in 1957 and was, for many viewers, an introduction to Dr. King.
Martin Luther King in Minnesota – Minnesota Experience
In 1967, Dr. King visited the University of Minnesota. Footage from the speech he gave and his subsequent interview with L. Howard Bennett on campus was found and digitized in 2019. His ability to engage a crowd and move hearts with his words is on full display in this special episode of Minnesota Experience.
The battle to honor a heroic leader
In 1968, only four days after Dr. King’s assassination, John Conyers, a Democratic congressman from Michigan, proposed a bill for the establishment of a federal holiday in King’s honor. Despite the failure of this first bill, Conyers, with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, continued to bring the same bill to Congress year-after-year.
The bill may not have gotten traction had it not been for the many working-class citizens who risked their livelihoods to demand a day in which to honor their hero. The late Dr. King’s pro-labor stance and close relationships with union activists compelled union members to organize protests and strikes to negotiate contracts that included a paid holiday on King’s birthday along with better wages and benefits.
Over the course of the 1970s, the efforts of unions and other proponents of the holiday clashed with those opposing it. Meanwhile, Conyers joined forces with King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and the King Center, an organization dedicated to preserving Dr. King’s memory, to campaign for his birthday to be made a national holiday.
Their efforts finally began to bear fruit in the early 1980s: Coretta Scott King submitted six million signatures supporting a bill to establish a federal holiday in King’s honor; Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday,” a song dedicated to King, inspired a rush of public support.
In 1983, 15 years after King’s assassination, Congress finally passed a bill designating the third Monday in January to be a federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, the legislation did not guarantee that individual states would observe MLK Day. Some states combine it with a holiday celebrating Confederate general Robert E. Lee, or rescinded observance of the holiday altogether. It was not until 2000 that all states finally acknowledged the holiday, and it continues to be a subject of heated debate today.
Reading Partners DC staff and AmeriCorps members serving with A Wider Circle on MLK Day of Service 2020
A day on, not off
In 1994, Congress passed the King Holiday and Service Act, which transformed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into a day dedicated to volunteer service in honor of Dr. King’s legacy. Since then, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has coordinated the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, funding independent service projects as well as mobilizing its AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers to serve in various ways in their local communities. The day is now a day “on” rather than a day off, a holiday for the good of the people, much like the 9/11 Day of Service.
You can participate in honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy by signing up to volunteer for a local, regional, or national organization, bringing people together to create and register your own project, or even donating to a cause of your choice.
And if you would like to commit more than just a day or a weekend to serving the people in your community, it’s not too late to become a tutor with Reading Partners for this school year! Click on the link below to find out how to get started.