The history behind MLK Day and where to celebrate it - Albuquerque Journal

The history behind MLK Day and where to celebrate it

As we have New Year’s Day in the rear view mirror, celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 16, and have nine more federal holidays to come this year, you may be wondering, just how are federal holidays established and what’s behind MLK Day?

How holidays come to be

Federal holidays are designated by the U.S. Congress. Non-essential federal government offices are closed and federal employees are paid for the holiday. The federal government recognizes 11 holidays; this year, in addition to New Year’s and MLK Day, we will observe Washington’s birthday on Feb. 20, Memorial Day on May 29, Juneteenth Independence Day on June 19, Independence Day on July 4, Labor Day on Sept. 4, Columbus Day on Oct. 9, Veterans Day on Nov. 10, Thanksgiving Day on Nov. 23 and Christmas Day on Dec. 25.

Many other establishments recognize those same holidays. While it may feel good to have a day off, there’s a lot more to it. There is significant effort in the creation of the holidays and the recognition of why the holiday was established.

The first federal holidays were created in 1870: New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. The most recent, Juneteenth, was created on June 17, 2021.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established Nov. 2, 1983, to honor civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was born on Jan. 15, 1929. It is a floating Monday holiday, recognized on the third Monday in January.

MLK Day history

Martin Luther King Jr. was a social activist and Baptist minister who played a key role in the American civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until his assassination in 1968. King sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the poor and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

After his assassination, Rosemary Ryan of Kansas City, Kansas, wrote a letter to the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) expressing her desire for King’s Jan. 15 birthday to be made a national holiday. “I want Dr. King’s birthday declared a national holiday to remind the whole world over, for centuries to come, that Martin Luther King Jr. suffered and sacrificed his life so that all mankind may one day live together in brotherhood,” Ryan wrote.

Hundreds of other letters and postcards sent to the SCLC echoed Ryan’s message, along with thousands of petitions gathered from around the country and forwarded to Abernathy’s attention. By April 1971, the SCLC had gathered more than three million signatures of support. Abernathy led a march on Washington to deliver the signature petitions, including Rosemary Ryan’s, to Congress, where they became part of the records of the House Judiciary Committee.

King was the first modern private citizen to be honored with a federal holiday. The first congressional push for a holiday honoring King took place just four days after his assassination. John Conyers, then a Democratic congressman from Michigan, took to the floor of Congress to insist on a federal holiday in King’s honor. The bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass, but fell five votes short with a 252-133 count. Conyers continued to introduce the same bill, gaining co-sponsors over the years.

By the early 1980s, the Congressional Black Caucus had gathered six million signatures in support of the holiday to honor King. Many will recall the 1981 Stevie Wonder song, “Happy Birthday,” about King, which created an upswell of public support for the holiday.

The House took up the bill in 1983 and it passed 338 to 90. Getting the bill through the Senate was contentious. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina actively opposed the bill. Despite his efforts, the bill passed the Senate by 12 votes. President Reagan signed the bill in November 1983. The first King federal holiday was celebrated in 1986.

How to celebrate MLK Day

The holiday has several purposes; it honors the legacy of King, focuses on civil rights issues and recognizes the use of nonviolence to promote change and calls for public service. The King Holiday and Service Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Aug. 23, 1994. Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Sen. Harris Wofford introduced the legislation to encourage Americans to find common causes and methods of improving their communities.

Visit nmmlksc.org or call (505) 221-9016 or (505) 222-6466 to find events in Albuquerque, including a march to kick off the celebrations, as well as ceremonies.

Sources: history.house.gov/Records-and-Research/Listing/c_041/; history.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr-day-controversial-origins-of-the-holiday; nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/15-year-battle-martin-luther-king-jr-day\

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