By Gregory T. Moore
Forty years ago, the U.S. Congress passed a bill establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as the nation’s first federal holiday honoring an African American. The bill calling for a national holiday was introduced in the U.S. Congress just days after Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, by the late congressman John Conyers, Jr, a Democrat from Michigan. There was not an immediate embrace of Dr. King—or the poverty alleviation, voting rights, or racial justice issues he championed throughout his adult life. For over 15 years, the bill sat dormant in the halls of Congress with Conyers reintroducing it every year with little signs of success.
Despite a sizable Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, the bill was never able to garner the support it needed to be seriously considered and voted into law. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Congress was still dominated by powerful southern conservative Congressmen in both the Republican and Democratic parties. They could not bring themselves to bestow such an honor on a man who marched against their state governments for their failure to fully enforce civil and voting rights laws that would fulfill what Dr. King called “the broken promises of democracy” during his historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
Dr. King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference worked alongside the NAACP, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and scores of local activists in leading non-violent protests to convince a reluctant Congress to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These two laws alone have become the foundation for many of the battles that continue today for voting rights, women’s rights, gender equity, affirmative action, diversity, and inclusion programs. Despite legal and political challenges to these laws, they have withstood the test of time. Over 50 years of successful litigation and advocacy by the civil rights community have helped to preserve these and other major civil and voting rights laws. Without Dr. King and other civil rights leaders’ many sacrifices, our nation would be a much more racially intolerant and dangerous place than it is today.
Despite the historical significance of Dr. King, it took 15 years before a reluctant Congress and Republican President Ronald Reagan would sign a bill into law that created a federal holiday. Congress only acted after Dr. King’s Widow Coretta Scott King, Entertainer Stevie Wonder, and the civil rights community worked tirelessly with a broad cross-section of Americans to build the grassroots support needed to get the MLK Holiday bill finally passed into law (6 surprising facts about the King Holiday | Facing South). Throughout their advocacy, they stressed that the holiday should not be dedicated to just one man, but to a movement and the idea that national service was the best way to honor Dr. King. Even after its passage, Mrs. King was chosen to spearhead what would become the bi-partisan Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. The bi-partisan commission worked for 3 years after its passage to develop national commemoration standards to be followed by federal, state, and local governments, military installations, academic and faith-based institutions, school systems, museums, and other institutions.
It is important to recount this history as we commemorate yet another King Holiday on January 16, 2023, almost 40 years after its passage. There are numerous events throughout the Cleveland area that are being planned to honor Dr. King and the work of the civil rights movement. Whether in person or virtual, you can participate and continue to keep the legacy of Dr. King’s Dream Alive. Click here for a complete list of activities.