The annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is next Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, and though the fight to make the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday an official holiday took 32 years, there was a lot of campaigning and guest appearances by Stevie Wonder, Ted Kennedy and the NFL, along with committees across the country. I was blessed to participate in the D.C. Committee under the late Hellen Tate of Ward 5. Each year, we all attended the Prayer Breakfast, which is still going. I’m thankful to have had a role in working with the committee here in the District of Columbia.
King’s birthday was finally approved as a federal holiday in 1983, and all 50 states made it a state government holiday by 2000. Officially, King was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta. But the King holiday is marked every year on the third Monday in January.
The King Center in Atlanta has a detailed chronology of how the efforts, starting shortly after King’s death in 1968, paid off in the long run. It wasn’t an easy task for holiday supporters, who had to push hard in Congress to get the federal holiday created, as reported by the National Constitution Center located at 525 Arch Street in Philadelphia.
A second battle took place to get individual states to also recognize the holiday, with often-emotional disagreements in two states. Today, however, the King holiday serves multiple purposes:
– It honors the total legacy of King; focuses on the issue of civil rights.
– It highlights the use of nonviolence to promote change.
– Finally, it calls people into public service.
The struggle to get the holiday recognized reflects all these topics, along with some interesting twists and turns along the way. Rep. John Conyers introduced the first motion to make King’s birthday a federal holiday in 1968, just four days after King’s assassination in Memphis. It was my pleasure to interview the late Congressman Conyers on my radio show at Radio One, Washington, Spirit 1340 WYCB. That show was my highest-rated social media show. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation sent out tweets, and my phone was continuously celebrating the live interview. It took another 11 years for the federal holiday to come up for a vote on the House of Representatives floor in 1979.
The bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass, but it fell five votes short with a 252-133 count, despite a strong organizational effort from the King Center, and support from Congress members and President Jimmy Carter.
The holiday’s supporters regrouped and intensified their efforts. Musician Stevie Wonder helped in 1981 by releasing the song “Happy Birthday” to promote the holiday. (He would later sing it at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication in 2011.)
The King Center kept up its efforts. It organized a March on Washington that included an estimated 500,000 people. Coretta Scott King, along with Wonder, presented a petition signed by 6 million people to House leader Tip O’Neill.
There was also a fight in South Carolina over the holiday. It was one of the last states to approve a paid King holiday for state employees in 2000.
The state’s governor had tried to link the holiday to a commitment to allow the state house to fly the Confederate battle flag. Instead, he signed a bill that approved the King holiday along with a Confederate Memorial Day celebrated in May.
Here in Washington, D.C., there is a Prayer Breakfast being held on Saturday at The Arc, and tickets are $25. I’ve already purchased my ticket — hope to see you there.
Register to participate in the annual MLK Day Peace Walk and Parade, from 9:30 am- 2 p.m., hosted by Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes. Contact the office for registration by calling 202-581-4100.
Finally, next week on “The Lyndia Grant Show” (Spirit 1340 WYCB), we will be joined by Chance Patterson, founder and CEO of Chance Impact LLC, who is a public relations and communications professional who has previously worked with global brands and luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, and Discovery Communications. He currently serves as a strategic adviser on communications, diversity, equity and inclusion, and legal affairs with the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. He will discuss a new online training program recently launched by the MLK center that represents peaceful conflict resolution.
Lyndia Grant is a speaker/writer living in the D.C. area. Her radio show, “Think on These Things,” airs Fridays at 6 p.m. on 1340 AM (WYCB), a Radio One station. To reach Grant, visit her website, www.lyndiagrant.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 240-602-6295. Follow her on Twitter @LyndiaGrant and on Facebook.