In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day an official holiday. MLK Day is celebrated on the third Monday in January annually close to Jan. 15, Dr. King’s birthday, to commemorate his life.
The holiday promotes equal rights and reflects King’s life by celebrating the activism he stood for. Americans honor King’s fight for equality with parades, community events and memorials.
MLK Day is only the third holiday that was created to recognize an individual. Reagan signed the bill 15 years after King’s assassination and it was first observed in 1986. Only in the year 2000 did all 50 states officially observe the holiday.
Shortly after King’s death, Congressman John Conyers Jr. proposed legislation to make King’s birthday a national holiday. Three years later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sent Congress a petition signed by over 3 million people in support.
The bill was in a state of conflict for about a decade until it eventually gained support under President Jimmy Carter, according to Time.com.
Coretta Scott King, King’s wife, was an advocate for the proposal to recognize King with a national holiday. She gathered nationwide support and testified before joint hearings of Congress. Even after the bill was defeated by five votes in Nov. 1979, she continued to rally support to send the bill to the Senate.
The bill saw more opposition in the Senate, however, when Senators John P. East and Jesse Helms took the floor with allegations of King’s involvement with communists. Nevertheless, the bill passed and was sent to Reagan to be signed.
Coretta Scott King said of the holiday that it was, “not merely a holiday, but a true holy day which honors the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Junior, in the best possible way.”