On Jan. 16, 2017, America will honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. in many ways. The anniversary of his birth is the day before; he was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. King Jr’s life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, and if he had lived he would be celebrating his 88th birthday.
King Jr. is considered to be the leader of the Civil Rights Movement; his birthday is celebrated every year on the third Monday of January. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating this federal holiday on Nov. 2, 1983.
Minister Becomes an Activist
Many people have collected various quotes from speeches made by King Jr. As a minister and an activist, he was an elegant speaker with the ability to address the issues of the day. One quote discusses unconscionable attitudes:
Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
King Jr. followed the footsteps of his grandfather and father as a minister. In 1960 he began to serve the Lord at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, founded in 1914 by his grandfather. Prior to joining the family-run house of God, King Jr. became the pastor of another in Montgomery, Ala.; the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954.
By this time he had already cut his teeth on forwarding the civil rights of the African-American community. King Jr. was already a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In Dec. 1955, he accepted the leadership role of the first nonviolent demonstration by African-Americans. The protest was a 382-day boycott of racial segregation on buses.
Unfortunately, during the demonstration, he was arrested and subjected to abuse. His home was bombed “but at the same time he emerged as a Negro leader of the first rank,” according to the official website of the Nobel Prize.
The boycott proved effective as the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to have laws requiring segregation on public transportation. Their decision occurred on Dec. 21, 1956, a year after the protest.
By 1957 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) elected him as the organization’s president. This group was created to fulfill the need of leadership necessary for a fruitful and burgeoning civil rights movement. The SCLC ideals were rooted in Christianity and used Gandhi as a model for their operational technique.
King Jr. spoke over 2,500 times, traveled more than 6 million miles over an eleven-year period. Between 1957 and 1968 he showed up wherever there was injustice and protests took place. To further civil rights, he authored many articles and five books.
The Long Battle in Congress to Honor Martin Luther King Jr.
Four days after the assassination of King Jr., Congressman John Conyers, D-Mich., spearheaded the establishment of Martin Luther King Day. The congressman was unable to garner support for the bill.
However, he continued to reintroduce it. In a round about method to forward his desire to see King Jr. honored, Conyers convinced the governor of New York and New York City’s mayor to observe the activist’s birthday in 1970. St. Louis, Mo. followed suit the following year, and in subsequent years other cities emulated the celebration honoring the fallen hero, who would be 88 years old had he not been assassinated.
In 1981, Conyer enlisted assistance from Stevie Wonder to memorialize King Jr. with the song, “Happy Birthday.” The lyrics did not mimic the traditional song. Here is the second stanza.
I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King
Happy birthday to you
Moreover, Conyer held marches in 1982 and 1983 to support MLK Day. It was in 1983 when he was successful in his attempt to push the bill to a vote. Rep. William Dannemeyer, R-Calif., argued the cost of creating a federal holiday would be prohibitive. The estimated cost reflected lost productivity for the federal government to the tune of $225 million. The Reagan administration concurred the cost was prohibitive.
The House overwhelmingly voted to support the bill, 338 yeas to 90 nays. However, in the Senate, the argument was not about money or time lost, but blatant racism. Sen. Jesse Helms, D-N.C., filibustered against the bill and wanted the FBI to release their files on King Jr. He asserted the civil rights leader was a Communist and did not deserve to have a federal holiday named after him.
President Reagan defended Helm’s position and indicated that America would have to wait the requisite time, 35 years, for the FBI files to be made public. Later the president apologized when a federal judge blocked the release of those files.
The next move conservative senators made was to change the name to National Civil Rights Day. They did not succeed. Once the Senate voted, it passed garnering 78 yes votes to 22. Reagan begrudgingly signed the bill into law.
The long road to the fruition of the bill took 15 years. On Jan. 11, 1986, King Jr’s widow, Coretta Scott King chaired the first Martin Luther King Day. The first holiday occurred on Jan. 20 after a week-long commemoration event.
It was not until the 1990s before the holiday began to be established everywhere in the United States. Today Americans honor the assassinated civil rights leader, who would have been 88 years old if he had lived. King Jr. did not see his four children grow up. His widow and children have worked hard to preserve and further his values.
By Cathy Milne
About Education: How Martin Luther King Day Became a Federal Holiday
Nobel Media: Martin Luther King Jr. – Biography
METROLYRICS; CBS Interactive: Happy Birthday Lyrics (Stevie Wonder)
Feature Image Courtesy of InSapphoWeTrust’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of Maryland GovPics’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of U.S. Embassy New Delhi’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License