Monday, January 18, 2010

Today's Holiday: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr. was barely 39 when he was killed in 1968. In his short life he accomplished more than most accomplish in an entire lifetime. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in sociology, a Bachelor of Divinity, and a Doctoral degree in philosophy. He was an ordained minister, a major player in the civil rights movement, and a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led the March on Washington, and delivered his world famous "I Have a Dream" speech. (Check out Amanda's letter to MLK regarding the state of his dream.) What is less known about Mr. King is that after his civil rights work, he focused his energies on ending poverty and opposing the war in Vietnam.

After his death in 1968, a representative from Michigan first introduced a bill to make King's birthday a federal holiday. It failed by 5 votes. It wasn't until 1983 that Ronald Reagan finally signed a bill (introduced by Indiana representative Katie Hall) that would make the third Monday of January a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. The first time MLK Day was observed was three years later in 1986.

Many people opposed a holiday to memorialize King. Some cited the cost to pay federal employees for another holiday. Some argued that MLK wasn't important enough for a holiday. And others complained that he had opposed the Vietnam War. Even after Reagan made the holiday official, some states refused to recognize it. Utah had "Human Rights Day" until 2000. In both Virginia and Mississippi the day was for, ironically, both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee. In 2000, Virginia changed to just MLK Day, but Mississippi maintains their ironic dual memorial. Again in the year 2000, South Carolina was the last state to implement MLK Day as a paid holiday for federal employees.

Who would have guessed there was so much controversy over Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

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