History is made with the first celebration of a federal holiday
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day! enjoy the paid federal holiday that you have today. As it is a significant holiday, it’s worth discussing it in today’s #HistoryMonday that was first celebrated as a federal holiday on this date.
On this day in 1986, the holiday was first celebrated as a federal holiday after being approved and signed into law on November 2, 1983. This was after the first introduction of the notion of recognizing King for his Civil Rights efforts in 1979 by Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan & Sen. Edward Brooke (R) of Massachusetts.
The passage of a bill establishing the holiday was not easily accepted despite Rev. King’s Civil Rights contributions and eventual memorials. Objections to a federal holiday included the cost of paying for employees to have a vacation and whether a private citizen merited a federal holiday. At the time of discussion of establishing a holiday honoring Rev. King, only George Washington and Christopher Columbus had been recognized with federal holidays.
Senators Jesse Helms and John Porter East (both Republicans from North Carolina) led objections to passage of legislation establishing the holiday that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t necessarily important enough to deserve a holiday. Sen. Helms added further objections that were more specious and scurrilous, accusing King of Communist sympathies which were the reasons why King questioned American involvement in Vietnam. Most Senators who promoted the holiday rejected Sen. Helms accusations and pressed forward in their efforts.
As the holiday was signed into law, it established a Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission as well as establishing the day as the third Monday of January each year. Shortly after the commission was established, Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr. was appointed to the commission.
While the holiday was first celebrated on this day in 1986 as a federal holiday, state legislatures decided individually whether they would recognize the holiday as well. Eventually each state established the day following similar guidelines laid out in the federal legislation with the last two establishing the holiday in 2000, being New Hampshire and South Carolina. New Hampshire’s passage of legislation was a technicality and named the day for Martin Luther King Jr. after celebrating the day while it was named Civil Rights Day until 1999. South Carolina did allow citizens to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. or one of three Confederate holidays which creates a unique dichotomy.
Southern states of course had some challenges celebrating the day given their negative involvement with Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders and already established holidays dedicated to Gen. Robert E. Lee, born on January 19 and Gen. Stonewall Jackson, born on January 21. As you can imagine celebrating Generals leading the Confederate Army while celebrating the hero of the Civil Rights movement creates some issues. These original holidays generally were dedicated primarily to Robert E. Lee, except in Virginia. Eventually, most Southern states moved a celebration of Robert E. Lee to a date in October commemorating the occasion of his death. Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson Day as the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Many public-school systems decide whether to celebrate at a local level. Growing up in Southern Indiana, which is 97% in most communities will opt to conduct classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, except in more diverse school districts who use it as a snow makeup day if needed. Personally, there is more education about Martin Luther King when school is in session than when kids are home on vacation and pay little attention to the holiday’s namesake. This is typically true of most public schools around the nation and not just in my neck of the woods.
Does your community do anything special for Martin Luther King Jr. Day?