Executive Director’s Letter
January 18, 2022
After the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican from Massachusetts) introduced a bill in Congress to make King's birthday a national holiday. Through this show of bipartisanship the bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979. However, it was not signed into law until 1983 by President Ronald Regan, who initially opposed the establishment of a federal holiday in King’s honor. The holiday took effect three years later in 1986.
Even so, many states objected to adopting the holiday and it wasn’t until 1999 that New Hampshire became the last state to name a holiday after King, which they first celebrated along with all other states in January 2000. The expressed reasons for objection were costs, but some went further. From Wikipedia:
“Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East (both North Carolina Republicans) led the opposition to the holiday and questioned whether King was important enough to receive such an honor. Helms criticized King's opposition to the Vietnam War and accused him of espousing "action-oriented Marxism". Helms led a filibuster against the bill and on October 3, 1983, submitted a 300-page document to the Senate alleging that King had associations with communists. Democratic New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the document a "packet of filth", threw it on the Senate floor and stomped on it.”
The fight continued with entertainers and the National Football League boycotting the state of Arizona for not adopting the holiday. In South Carolina, lawmakers attempted to link adoption of the holiday to a commitment to flying of the Confederate Battle flag at the state house. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture notes, “Some states include additional holidays, which are celebrated concurrently with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Arizona and New Hampshire, for example, celebrate “Civil Rights Day” and Wyoming celebrates “Wyoming Equality Day.” Other states, like Alabama and Mississippi, have combined the King holiday with “Robert E. Lee Day” to honor the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who was born on January 19.”
A powerful voice in efforts to create the holiday was musician Stevie Wonder. Using his art, talent, and presence on the national stage, Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” on his 1980 album, “Hotter than July.” Wonder worked tirelessly supporting Coretta Scott King to raise awareness and build momentum for the holiday through his tour and at rallies. Today, Martin Luther King, Jr., is the only day of national service in the United States.
I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
-Stevie Wonder, “Happy Birthday”
Learning more about the 15 (32 if you include the 17 years before it was adopted in all 50 states) struggle for King’s recognition, the seeds of today’s national racial divisiveness are evident. It is the aggrieved white people who veil the honor, or equate it with their attachment to the Confederacy, that take offense when the accomplishments and history of Black people are named and celebrated. In the sense that there was a righteous victory, it does give me hope that our nation can fight its way out of the wilderness in which we now find ourselves wandering.
Thank you to all those who persevere for just causes throughout history and today.
With deepest gratitude for the sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr.,