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“I’ve been to the Mountaintop” - A Brief History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

posted Jan 15, 2014, 8:04 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 8, 2014, 8:47 AM by Unknown user ]

Matthew Bado

Martin Luther King, Jr. day is one of the most recent holidays in American history, and was celebrated by all fifty states for the first time in the year 2000. Celebrated on the third monday of the year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a “floating holiday” - which means that it will always take place on the third Monday, regardless of when MLK’s actual birthday is, which is on Jan. 15th.

The holiday was signed in to law by President Reagan in 1983, and was first observed in 1986. Initially, some states resisted the holiday by giving it alternate names, or combining it with other holidays.

Two senators from North Carolina (Jesse Helms and John Porter East) led the opposition to the bill. They questioned if he was important enough for a holiday, criticized his opposition to the Vietnam war, and accused him of promoting “pro-Marxist” ideology. Helms led a filibuster against the bill, and in October 1983 brought a 300-page packet accusing King of associating with communists and promoting their ideology.

A pro-holiday New York Senator (Daniel Patrick Moynihan) called the bill a “packet of filth,” threw it on the senate floor, and stomped on it. In the end, the bill was passed by the House of Representatives by a 338-90 vote.

In 2000, South Carolina’s Governor signed a bill to make Dr. King’s birthday an official holiday, making South Carolina the last state to recognize MLK Jr. Day as an official federal holiday.

oto courtesy of (fair use)

Several states had combined this holiday, or provided alternate names for the holiday. For example, the holiday was known as “Human Rights Day” in Utah until 2000. In both Arizona and New Hampshire, the holiday’s name is “Martin Luther King, Jr./Civil Rights Day.”

In Virginia, the holiday was known as Lee-Jackson-King Day (a combination day for the birthdays of Dr. King and Confederate Generals Lee and Jackson). The seemingly contrarian nature of a holiday celebrating two Confederate generals and a Civil Rights leader was not lost on the Virginia senate and, in 2000, the two holidays were separated. However, Mississippi still celebrates Robert E Lee’s birthday and Dr. King’s birthday on the same day (Mississippi is also the only state to still have a Confederate flag on its state flag). In Alabama, Robert E Lee and Dr. King’s birthdays share the same federal holiday (the third Monday of January).

For us, these controversies mean little to many in 2014. So, this MLK Jr. day, enjoy some time off after exams, and spend time remembering how we got here. Without the sacrifices and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., where would we be now?