On January 15, the entire nation pauses in remembrance of a civil rights hero. At least, that’s the point of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday that takes place on the third Monday of each January. MLK Day was designed to honor the activist and minister assassinated in 1968, whose accomplishments have continued to inspire generations of Americans.
But though the holiday now graces the United States’ federal calendar and affects countless offices, schools, businesses and other public and private spaces, it wasn’t always observed. The fight for a holiday in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s honor was an epic struggle in and of itself—and it continues to face resistance in the form of competing holidays to leaders of the Confederacy.
King was the first modern private citizen to be honored with a federal holiday, and for many familiar with his non-violent leadership of the civil rights movement, it made sense to celebrate him. But for others, the suggestion that King—a black minister who was vilified during his life and gunned down when he was just 39 years old—deserved a holiday was nothing short of incendiary.
The first push for a holiday honoring King took place just four days after his assassination. John Conyers, then a Democratic Congressman from Michigan, took to the floor of Congress to insist on a federal holiday in King’s honor. However, the request fell on deaf ears.
One of the few black people in Congress, Conyers had been an active member of the civil rights movement for years. He had visited Selma, Alabama in support of King and the 1965 Freedom Day, one of several mass voter registration events in which large numbers of African Americans attempted to register to vote despite local defiance and armed intimidation.
When his first bill failed, Conyers was undaunted. “Conyers would persist year after year, Congress after Congress, in introducing the same bill again and again, gathering co-sponsors along the way, until his persistence finally paid off,” writes historian Don Wolfensberger.
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