President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into office on November 4th, 1983. This was fifteen years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), a Baptist minister who led the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the 1950s up until his death. Just months after his death, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan petitioned to make King’s birthday, January 15th, a federal holiday.
There was a lot of controversy over the passing of this bill and it wasn’t immediately passed. It actually languished in Congress for 8 years before Jimmy Carter helped support Coretta Scott King, King’s wife, in passing the bill. It was defeated in 1979, though, by just 5 votes. Coretta received some help from legendary musician Stevie Wonder when he wrote the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980. Stevie and Coretta presented the bill to Congress with 6 million support signatures and the House passed the bill with a 338 to 90 vote.
The bill faced some trouble in the Senate because several Republican senators attempted to associate King’s beliefs with those of communists, and they highlighted his alleged sexual dalliances as reasons not to make his birthday a federal holiday. Nevertheless, the bill passed and Reagan signed it into office in 1983. It has since taken place annually on the third Monday in January.
“This is not a black holiday; it’s a people’s holiday,” said Ms. King. That is exactly how we should remember Dr. King. Unite for equality. Be kind to each other, continue spreading love and peace, and always strive to rise above. We need to embody these words now more than ever.