Having grown up in an era when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was already established as a national holiday, it can seem as if the holiday was a no-brainer, a day to celebrate this important man’s contributions to civil rights, equality, and our nation. However, the holiday was, and still is by some, debated and contested by those who didn’t feel Dr. King’s contributions were important enough and by white supremacists.
The campaign to create the federal holiday began in the 1970s, shortly after King’s death (1968). The idea did not come up for a vote though until 1979, when it was introduced by a bipartisan partnership, but the bill fell 5 votes short of passing. Arguments against the holiday included cost (it would cost too much to have an additional paid federal holiday), and tradition (holidays for private citizens as opposed to public officials were not tradition). However, by this time, Columbus Day was already a federal holiday (1934).
The King Center then began campaigning for the national holiday by directly gathering support from the public. Music factored into the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday, with musicians stepping up to sway public opinion through song. Artists also used song to celebrate Dr. King and the federal recognition of a day to honor him. Later musicians used their platform to push back against states that tried to remove the holiday. Below are three songs that help to tell the story of this campaign, the success of having the day named a federal holiday, and the continued struggle to have all 50 states recognize the holiday.
- “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder (1980)
“You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you”
“I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King”
To support the campaign for Dr. King’s national holiday, Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980. He also hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. These efforts helped lead to the collecting of 6 million signatures to pass the law. After extensive debates in Congress and an attempted filibuster, the law was finally passed in 1983 with a veto-proof margin and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983. The holiday would be observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.
2. “King Holiday” by King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew, which was a Supergroup [King Dream Chorus: El DeBarge, Whitney Houston, Stacy Lattisaw, Lisa Lisa with Full Force, Teena Marie, Menudo: Charlie Masso, Roy Rossello, Robi Rosa, Ray Acevedo, Ricky Martin, Stephanie Mills, New Edition, James “J.T.” Taylor; Holiday Crew: Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Run–D.M.C., and Whodini
“Once a year we celebrate
Washington and Lincoln on their birth dates
And now a third name is added to the list
A man of peace, (Drum Major for Justice)
Now, now, now every January on the third Monday
We pay homage to the man who paved the way
For freedom, justice and equality
To make the world a better place for you and me
It’s a holiday, it’s a gathering
For the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King tried to love somebody
(Do you wanna love somebody)
For his sake put your hate away, take a day
(Take a day to love somebody)
Don’t play on the Holiday, work to find a better way
(Everybody love somebody now)
He had a dream now it’s up to you
He had a dream now it’s up to you
To see it through, to make it come true
Now do it”
This song was released on January 13, 1986 to commemorate the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. All proceeds from the song were donated to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The project to record the song was led by Dr. King’s son, Dexter Scott King. The original video was low budget, but there is better audio of the song available via Apple Music and probably other streaming services as well. The song defines what the holiday is all about and suggests what you might do on the day- “work to find a better way.”
3. “By The Time I Get to Arizona” by Public Enemy (1991)
“He try to keep it yesteryear
The good ol’ days
The same ol’ ways
That kept us dyin’
Yes, you me myself and Indeed
What he need is a nosebleed
Read between the lines
Then you see the lie
But understand that’s all she wrote
When we see the real side
That hide behind the vote
They can’t understand why he the man
I’m singin’ ’bout a king
They don’t like it
When I decide to mike it
Wait I’m waitin’ for the date
For the man who demands respect
‘Cause he was great c’mon
I’m on the one mission
To get a politician
To honor or he’s a goner
By the time I get to Arizona”
While the federal law went into effect in 1986, many states resisted passing state level laws to make the day a holiday for state employees. Some states combined the holiday with others, named the day something other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or did not make the day a paid state holiday.
Utah became the last state to name a holiday after King when “Human Rights Day” was officially changed to “Martin Luther King Jr. Day” in 2000. South Carolina was the last state to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid state holiday, also in 2000. Prior to then, state employees could choose between celebrating MLK day and celebrating one of three Confederate holidays.
Controversy erupted in Arizona when the governor, Evan Mecham, undid his predecessors executive order which had made MLK day a paid state holiday in 1986. Instead, Mecham declared the 3rd Sunday as the state holiday, naming it Martin Luther King, Jr. Day/Civil Rights Day, of course, making it unpaid. In 1990 citizens were asked to vote on giving state employees a paid holiday for the day, but the two options to vote on both included doing away with another paid holiday to make room for MLK day and neither passed. This result caused the National Football League to move the Super Bowl from Arizona to California, which they had threatened to do if the MLK day was not passed. Finally in 1992 a referendum passed making Martin Luther King, Jr Day a paid state holiday in Arizona.
Many saw Mecham’s opposition to making MLK Day a paid state holiday as racist, or disrespectful to Dr. King’s legacy. In response to the controversy in Arizona in 1990, Public Enemy recorded this song in 1991. However, the accompanying music video was criticized as being violent and running counter to Dr. King’s nonviolent message.
The struggle over Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day meant to honor, remember, and uphold the legacy of a man who practiced and preached non violent means in order to bring about racial equality continued well into the 2000s with various states combining MLK Day with days to celebrate Robert E. Lee and renaming the day. This struggle highlights the continued need for education about the history of civil rights, racial (in)equality, and the systems of oppression that have historically undermined people of color in the United States.