Call for King holiday: 1969
A flyer calling for a “Don’t Work” day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his assassination is posted on an H Street NW storefront in Washington, D.C. April 3, 1969.
The campaign for a national holiday honoring King began shortly after his death in 1968 and gained momentum as labor unions began obtaining King’s birthday as a holiday in their collective bargaining agreements with employers.
A number of attempts in Congress to establish the holiday failed until massive rallies and a petition campaign gathered six million names took place 1980-81 shifted momentum.
Congress passed the bill creating the holiday in 1983 and President Ronald Reagan signed it after initially opposing it. The law delayed implementation until 1986 when it was first celebrated as a national holiday (the third Monday of January each year—around King’s birthday of January 15th).
States recognizing the holiday followed slowly, with three southern states—Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi-- still combining the King holiday with a day honoring Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
King was the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became the leading civil rights spokesperson from beginning of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott in 1955 until his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 while supporting the efforts of sanitation workers to organize a union.
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Photo by Marion S. Trikosko. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-03197 (digital file from original)