Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Law since 1983 celebrated since 2000

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The fight for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968) addresses a rally at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 14th October 1963. (Photo by Frank Rockstroh/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

(ABC4) – Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. At first, many states opposed celebrating the holiday honoring America’s civil rights hero.

It took many years for the holiday to be formally adopted by each state, but when it was officially celebrated by all 50 states might surprise you.

The federal holiday honors the American activist, and civil rights movement leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., each year on the third Monday of January.

“The time is always right to do what is right,” Dr. King shares in 1965.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the National Constitution Center, the fight to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday actually took 32 years.

The holiday not only honors the life, legacy, and dedication of Dr. King but encourages Americans to focus on the issues of civil rights; highlighting the use of nonviolence to promote change. 

“In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. states. “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

According to the National Constitution Center, four days after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 in Memphis, Representative John Conyers introduced the first motion to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday. 

Eleven years later the proposition came up for a vote for the House of Representatives in 1979.

According to The National Constitution Center, the bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

It fell five votes short.  

Musical inspiration Stevie Wonder then released his version of the “Happy Birthday” song to honor and promote the celebration of the holiday in 1981. 

Years later in 1983, the House passed the bill by 53 votes, despite members of the Senate openly opposing it.

The United States 40th president; President Ronald Reagan signed the bill in November 1983.

The first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was then celebrated in 1986 with only 17 U.S. states formally adopting the holiday.

States like Arizona and South Carolina shared strong resistance in passing and adopting the holiday, shares the National Constitution Center.

A fight between state legislators then came to a head when the holiday was put up for an Arizona voter referendum in November 1990.

According to the National Constitution Center, entertainers and athletes started boycotting Arizona in protest. The NHL even threatened to move the 1993 Super Bowl from Tempe, Arizona. Staying true to their threat, the Super Bowl then took place in Southern California when the holiday lost in a two-part voter referendum.

Two years later, Arizona voters approved the holiday.

South Carolina was one of the last states to approve the paid holiday for state employees in 2000. By 2000 all 50 states adopted and celebrated the holiday. 

Utah’s 4th District Congressional Rep. Burgess Owens took to social media Monday sharing a personal message about his appreciation for the holiday.

“As a young man, we had separate bathrooms, water fountains, and schools. Thanks to heroes like #MartinLutherKingJr, my children and grandchildren get to live their American dream. As we honor Dr. King’s legacy, let’s reaffirm his devotion to creating a brighter future for all.”

Utah’s 2nd District Congressional Rep. Chris Stewart took to social media Monday saying “MLK Day serves as a reminder of the profound life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we honor his legacy, may we recommit to following his unifying example of mutual respect & compassion towards others. May we all remember the common bonds that we share & come together as a nation.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words of wisdom still ring true and timely today. Over the past year, many have found themselves clinging to his words of perseverance and admiring his legacy as we face hard times.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

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