The late Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta . This year, he would have celebrated his 92nd birthday.
It’s been nearly 53 years since Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. The 39-year-old, in town to support a sanitation workers’ strike, was struck by a bullet while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. He was pronounced dead upon arriving at the hospital.
The life and legacy of the civil rights icon is now celebrated all over the country on the third Monday in January. This year, MLK Day lands on Monday, Jan. 18.
Atlanta’s King District, home to the landmark King Center established in 1968 by King’s wife, Coretta Scott, following the death of her husband, remains a popular commemorative site to this day. In 2018, hundreds of thousands of people visited the district’s park in honor of the 50th anniversary of King’s death.
A brief timeline of the rocky origins of Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Months after King’s death, Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. introduced preliminary legislation to mark the civil rights icon’s birthday (Jan. 15) a federal holiday.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference presented Congress with a petition in support of a holiday. More than 3 million people signed it.
On Jan. 4, 1979, Former President Jimmy Carter pledged support for the bill, which had languished on Capitol Hill for nearly a dozen years since Conyers introduced it. According to Politico, Carter’s support was considered a “turning point.” King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, also testified before Congress and organized a nationwide lobby in support of the legislation.
In November, the bill was defeated by five votes. Coretta continued to mobilize officials and fight for the federal holiday.
Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” on his album Hotter Than July. The song “served as an unofficial commercial to call up people to sign the petition for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,” according to Genius.
On Jan. 15, Wonder headlined the King Center’s Rally for Peace Press Conference in Washington, D.C. to call for a national holiday. It was “the largest gathering of blacks in Washington since African Liberation Day in 1973,” according to the Washington Post. Wonder joined Coretta Scott King in the fight for a King holiday and together, they presented another petition to Congress. At least 6 million people signed the petition.
The bill passed the House by 53 votes, but the Senate was another story. In fact, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms actually introduced a 400-page filibuster accusing King of being a communist, which Senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan decried as “filth.”
Still, the bill passed the Senate by 12 votes and on Nov. 2, 1983, Former President Ronald Reagan approved the creation of the holiday.
The first official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was held on Jan. 20, 1986. Stevie Wonder headlined a commemorative concert in King’s honor.
Arizona lawmakers contested the holiday, with some hesitant to pass MLK Day as a state holiday. The holiday was then put up for a voter referendum in November. Then the National Football League got involved.
Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue threatened to pull Super Bowl XXVII out of Arizona over the political debate, and when the voter referendum on the holiday was rejected, the Super Bowl was officially moved to California. This cost Arizona an estimated $500 million in revenue, the Cronkite News Service reported.
After another voter referendum, Arizona approved the statewide King holiday.
Jan. 17, 2000, was the first time the holiday was officially observed in all 50 states. South Carolina was the last to approve a paid King holiday for state employees. Before this, employees could choose between celebrating MLK Day or one of three different Confederate holidays.
South Carolina’s Greenville County became the last U.S. county to officially adopt MLK Day as a paid holiday on Jan. 16, 2006. The county council had voted against a city holiday four times.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution