The battle to create a holiday recognizing the efforts and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took well over a decade and required countless hours of work from numerous individuals, laborers, and politicians. As so many great accomplishments in our nation’s history, the creation of this holiday was originally championed by union laborers throughout the United States. In fact, thousands of working-class Americans, of all backgrounds, risked their jobs to demand the right to honor a man who was not only a hero for civil rights but also for workers’ rights.
Dr. King’s pro-labor beliefs and politics gave recognition of the holiday special significance for the working class in America. During his time as an advocate, Dr. King worked closely with union leaders in order to help strengthen the rights of every day workers throughout the United States. In fact, it should not be ignored that Dr. King was shot while supporting a strike in Memphis, Tennessee, by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Brave auto industry workers in New York began protesting in the late 1960s by refusing to work on Dr. King’s birthday. Shortly thereafter hospitals began striking, returning only after higher wagers, better benefits, and a recognized holiday for Dr. King were negotiated.
Throughout the 1970s, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, Georgia, a center that serves as a beacon for change along with memorializing the life of Dr. King, began working with union leaders, politicians, and motivated individuals to coordinate efforts to create a federal holiday recognizing Dr. King and his accomplishments. The campaign took years, and the help of countless individuals (for example, Stevie Wonder dedicated his song “Happy Birthday” to the memory of Dr. King). These efforts were finally rewarded in 1983 when President Reagan signed a bill proposed by Democrat Representative Katie Hall of Indiana, into law creating a federal holiday honoring Dr. King. The holiday was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986. This holiday is now recognized by all fifty states.
It is important to take time on this day to recognize and thank Dr. King for his contributions to our country and the world. It is also necessary to remember all of the people who worked so hard to create a holiday to recognize Dr. King in order to assure that future generations learn about his contributions.
Personally, I will never forget the first time I read Dr. King’s famous letter from the Birmingham City Jail during my first constitutional law class. Not only did the letter move me on a deeply emotional level but it opened my eyes to the importance of activism and caring for your fellow man. As Dr. King famously said at Oberlin College, “[t]he time is always right to do what’s right.”
Today, take time to remember the contributions of Dr. King, and all of those who have helped to make our world a better place for all of the people in it.