Why Do We Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day?Martin Luther King Day is more than just a part of a long weekend. There is a significant reason why we celebrate this holiday (and the honorable man, Dr. King), each year...
***** What Is MLK Day? *****
The Martin Luther King, Jr., National Day of Service is a defining moment each year when Americans across the country step up to make communities more equitable and take action to create the Beloved Community of Dr. King’s dream. While Dr. King believed the Beloved Community was possible, he acknowledged and fought for systemic change. His example is our call to action.
MLK Day is the only federal holiday designated as a National Day of Service to encourage all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities. During the last quarter-century, the MLK Day of Service has grown, and its impact increased as more Americans embraced the idea that citizenship involves taking an active role in improving communities.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day is the third Monday in January, near Dr. King's birthday on January 15. Although MLK Day is a federal holiday, it is designed as "a day on, not a day off," says Sarah Hamilton, a social impact consultant. "This is a day of service that helps to strengthen communities, bridge barriers, address social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King's vision of a beloved community," says Hamilton.
----> This year, the holiday falls on Monday, January 16th
***** So, Why Do We Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day? *****
Dr. King wrote, spoke, marched, and stood up for what he believed in. What is unique about MLK Day compared to other federal holidays is that it is the only holiday designated as a national day of service. MLK Day not only honors the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but it encourages all Americans to volunteer to improve their communities.
It is seen as a day to promote equal rights for all Americans, regardless of racial, gender, ethnic, religious, or other backgrounds.
Most workplaces and federal offices take the day off in his honor.
In schools, many pupils are taught about the accomplishments King led in the United States.
Private organizations and federal legislation have encouraged Americans to volunteer their time on the day.
MLK Jr. Day has become the most recognized day on the calendar for community service.
The holiday also serves as an opportunity to educate and demand social justice in real and tangible ways. Founder of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast Jen Lumanlan finds that there is still very little understanding among many people—and parents—that the actions they may take daily actually contribute to perpetuating systemic racism. "We have this idea that if we're all just going about our lives and we're nice to Black people that there's no real problem—but the schools we enroll our children in, the ways we advocate for our children, and the opportunities we make available to them have very real consequences that reproduce inequalities.”
***** It Took 15 Years of fighting for MLK Day to be declared a national holiday *****
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.
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. He 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.
He enlisted the help of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which he was a founding member. For 15 years, the CBC attempted to break the stalled legislation loose, advocating within their constituent communities and helping Conyers introduce his bill year after year. Every single attempt failed, even after the bill was brought to the floor for debate.
The tide finally turned in the early 1980s. By then, the CBC had collected six million signatures in support of a federal holiday in honor of King. Stevie Wonder had written a hit song, “Happy Birthday,” about King, which drove an upswell of public support for the holiday. And in 1983, as civil rights movement veterans gathered in Washington to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington, King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, and the 15th anniversary of his murder, something shook loose.
When the legislation once again made it to the floor, it was filibustered by Jesse Helms, the Republican senator from North Carolina. As Helms pressed to introduce FBI smear material on King—whom the agency had spent years trying to pinpoint as a Communist and threat to the United States during the height of his influence—into the Congressional record, tensions boiled over. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senator from New York, brought the materials onto the floor, then dropped them to the ground in disgust in a pivotal moment of the debate. The bill passed with ease the following day (78-22) and President Ronald Reagan immediately signed the legislation.
But though the first federal holiday was celebrated in 1986, it took years for the observance to filter through to every state. Several Southern states promptly combined Martin Luther King Jr. Day with holidays that uplifted Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, who was born on January 19. Arizona initially observed the holiday, then rescinded it, leading to a years-long scuffle over whether to celebrate King that ended in multiple public referenda, major boycotts of the state, and a final voter registration push that helped propel a final referendum toward success in 1992.
It wasn’t until 2000 that every state in the Union finally observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Today, the holiday is still celebrated in conjunction with a celebration of Confederate figures in a few states—but after decades of contention and controversy, it is observed.