A Brief History of MLK Day

A Brief History of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service*

  • January 15, 1929 – Martin Luther King Jr. is born in Atlanta Georgia.
  • April 8, 1968 – U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-MI) and U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (R-MA) introduce legislation to create a federal holiday commemorating Dr. King, four days after his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • January 15, 1969 – The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center in Atlanta sponsors and observes the first celebration of King’s birthday.
  • April 1971 – The Southern Christian Leadership Conference presents to Congress petitions signed by three million supporters of the holiday. Congress does not act.
  • 1973 – Illinois is the first state to adopt Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a state holiday.
  • 1979 – Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, speaks before Congress urging legislators to pass a holiday bill. A petition supporting the bill receives 300,000 signatures; President Jimmy Carter endorses the initiative.
  • November 1979 – Conyers’ King Holiday bill fails to pass in the U.S. House of Representatives by five votes.
  • 1981 – Musician Stevie Wonder releases “Happy Birthday” to popularize the King holiday campaign, and holds a Rally for Peace Press Conference.
  • 1982 – Coretta Scott King and Wonder deliver a petition bearing over six million signatures to the Speaker of the House.
  • 1983 – Congress passes and President Ronald Reagan signs legislation creating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—the third Monday in January—as a national holiday. Senators Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Gordon Humphrey (R-NH) attempt to block the bill.
  • January 20, 1986 – First national celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday takes place.
  • January 16, 1989 – Forty-four states across the nation make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a state holiday.
  • 1994 – Coretta Scott King goes before Congress and quotes Dr. King’s 1968 sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” in which he said, “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” She requests that the holiday be an official national day of humanitarian service.
  • 1994 – Congress designates the holiday as a national day of service through the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act, which transformed the King Holiday into a day of citizen action and volunteer service in honor of Dr. King.
  • 1996 – Stevie Wonder performs “Happy Birthday” during the closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • 1999 – New Hampshire is the last state to adopt a holiday honoring King.
  • 2012 – “The Last Holiday,” poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir about the tour with Stevie Wonder to establish Martin Luther King Day, is published.
    * Adapted from CNN Online

For additional information on Dr. King, see our list of resources.

Last modified: January 10, 2014 at 20:11

The Campaign to Create the MLK Holiday