Published On: Jan 12 2012 01:22:53 PM CSTUpdated On: Jan 18 2016 12:29:42 AM CST
Observed on the third Monday of January each year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has only recently been a holiday for all Americans, all the time. Time.com walks readers through the complicated history behind this special holiday.
In the months after MLK's death in 1968, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation seeking to make King's birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday.
After it was founded, the King Memorial Center in Atlanta sponsored the first annual observance of King's birthday, in January 1969, almost a decade and a half before it became an official government holiday.
Three years after the preliminary legislation was introduced in 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting a King holiday.
Unable to gain support, the bill sat in Congress for eight years until President Jimmy Carter vowed to support a King holiday.
King's widow, Coretta Scott King, testified before joint hearings of Congress and organized a nationwide lobby to support the bill. She's famously quoted as stating, "This is not a black holiday; it is a people's holiday."
Despite support, in November 1979, the King-holiday bill was defeated in the House by just five votes.
Singer Stevie Wonder became an advocate and released the song "Happy Birthday" in 1980, which became a rallying cry. The House then passed the bill with a vote of 338 to 90.
The bill faced a tougher fight in the Senate. Rep. Senators East and Helms led an opposition campaign, attempting to emphasize King's associations with communists and his alleged sexual flings as reasons not to honor him with a federal holiday.
Oct. 3, 1983, Helms tried to disparage King on the Senate floor by reading a paper called "Martin Luther King Jr.: Political Activities and Associations." Some Senators expressed outrage over Helms' actions.
President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in November 1983 and the first official holiday was observed on the third Monday of January 1986.
At the time, only 27 states and Washington, D.C., honored the holiday. Most famously, all three Arizona House Republicans including former presidential candidate John McCain, voted against the bill in '83.
In 2000, the same year it pulled the Confederate flag down from its statehouse dome, South Carolina became the last state to sign a bill recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.
The federal holiday of Martin Luther King Day is celebrated nationally with many service events, often attended by leaders, celebrities and the president.
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