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The Struggle to Make King’s Birthday a Holiday

Date Posted: 2001-01-19

It took nearly two decades to make Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15, an official holiday.Established in 1986, it was the first new holiday since 1948 and only the third this century (the others are Memorial Day and Veterans Day).King is the only American besides George Washington to have a national holiday designated for his birthday Internationally, King is one of the few social leaders of any country to be honored with a holiday. That he was a member of a racial minority makes the distinction all the more unusual. Generally, the honor is reserved for military or religious figures.When President Reagan signed legislation creating the holiday in November 1983, it marked the end of a persistent, highly organized lobbying effort spanning the nation for 15 years.Petitions carrying more than 6 million signatures --- said to be the largest petition drive in history --- were submitted to Congress in 1970. The legislation was resubmitted during each subsequent congressional session.Mass marches in 1982 for voting rights and 1983 to mark the 20th anniversary of King's dramatic speech in Washington, D.C., also increased the pressure to assign the day. It took bipartisan support to overcome the opposition of Senator Jesse Helms, who labeled King a communist, and President Reagan's lukewarm attitude toward the legislation.After criticism that the holiday would be too close to the Christmas-New Year week, it was suggested that it be moved the third Monday of January. The notion of a three-day weekend, plus the fact that the third Monday often follows Super Bowl Sunday, helped pass the measure, supporters say.Arguments concerning money dominated opposition to the holiday. Costs associated with lost services on the King holiday were estimated at $18 million for the federal government; at $7 million to Washington state; at $1.18 million to Seattle. The estimated total was an astronomical $8 billion for government and private sector combined.Another common argument was "`why put Dr. King above other famous people?' His legacy won’t stand the test of time."Both arguments, supporters felt, were used to conceal racist resistance to the holiday.Not specifically patriotic or religious, the King holiday does not fit any traditional category. But black leaders hope it will become a deeply spiritual day.

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