MLK Day: Amplify Messages of Unity and Diversity
Community Over Competition
The first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was celebrated federally in January 1983. It would take several more years for the holiday to be celebrated in every state. Actually, several Southern states combined MLK Day with other holidays that also honored Confederate General Robert E. Lee, born January 19th.
Fourteen years later, at the start of a new millennium, every state in the Union observed (and continues to observe) Martin Luther King Jr. Day. A few states still celebrate MLK Day along with holidays surrounding Confederate leaders, but this is uncommon, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day is still recognized on the federal level.
Fighting for Civil Rights
If you were born after the 1980s, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday of every January is likely a common experience. You probably had it listed on your school calendar with a large “X” across the day and the words “School Closed” written at the top. But MLK Day wasn’t always as widely celebrated.
Actually, for a while, it wasn’t celebrated at all, and getting the holiday recognized was a decades-long fight. King may be applauded as a civil rights hero and symbol of nonviolence today, but when he was alive, he was a divisive figure. Some people loved him for what he was doing for the Black community and human rights.
Others saw him as a disruptive figure, and a threat to America, a feeling that remained after his assassination in 1968. Actually, the FBI had been investigating King for years, hoping to find evidence that would label him a communist. At the time of King’s death, John Conyers was a Black Democratic Congressman from Michigan.
Keeping the Dream Alive
He was the first to take to the floor of Congress and push for a federal holiday recognizing King’s work, and memory. Apparently, the request came too soon after King’s murder because it was ignored by Conyers’ fellow congressmen. But Conyers didn’t give up easily.
In addition to being a politician, he had been deeply involved in the civil rights movement and had even visited Selma, Alabama in 1965 in support of Freedom Day. This was a man who was used to opposition. He didn’t run from a challenge. For years he’d reintroduce the bill demanding a federal holiday be created in King’s honor.
Honoring the Hero
Despite the repeated rejection, he slowly gained support and eventually, his efforts paid off. With the help of his fellow Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members, Conyers collected six million signatures in favor of the bill.
Finally, in 1983, the bill passed with a 78 to 22 vote before being signed into law by then-president Ronald Reagan. Conyers and the CBC had reason to celebrate. A decades-long battle had come to an end.
To honor his memory, we decided to learn more about the man, Martin Luther King, Jr (Beyond his I Have A Dream Speech) and the day that honors him.