Making the calendar
This is an abridged version of a Seattle Times article that appeared in 1985 — a year before the first celebration of the holiday in King's honor.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew it takes time for attitudes to change, would not have been surprised that nearly two decades were required to make his birthday a legal holiday.
If anything, King, whose magnificent dream always had a pragmatic cast, would have been surprised that it has happened at all.
Even putting aside King's controversial career and his minority race, the odds against the new holiday were imposing. The arguments opposing it — cost to taxpayers, singling him out over others -- have been used for decades to resist creation of any new holiday.
His birthday is today. The official holiday, on the third Monday of January, begins next year. To place the new date in some perspective, consider:
It is the first new holiday since 1948, when Memorial Day was created as a "prayer for peace" day. And it's only the third this century (the other is Veterans Day, created as Armistice Day in 1926 to honor those who died in World War I).
King is the only American besides George Washington to have a national holiday designated for his birthday (those of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and others have been celebrated in some states but not nationwide).
Internationally, King is one of the few social leaders of any country to be honored with a holiday (Mahatma Gandhi's birthday is observed in India). Such status by a member of a country's racial minority is almost unheard of. Generally, the honor is reserved for military or religious figures.
Given such obstacles, the holiday is a powerful tribute to King's philosophy and stature.
"As is usually the case with great figures, particularly controversial ones who are fighting for a philosophy condemned by many, Dr. King was well ahead of his time," says Joseph Lowery, King's contemporary counterpart as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. "Even those very much opposed to him during his lifetime have come to see that segregation, injustice and militarism are concerns which must be addressed by modern society."
When President Reagan signed legislation creating the holiday in November 1983, it marked the end of a persistent, highly organized lobbying effort spanning the nation for 15 years.
"We worked hard to put together a national effort and make a powerful network," recalls Cedric Hendricks, legislative aide to Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat. It was Conyers who, four days after King was assassinated in Memphis, submitted the first legislation to commemorate his birthday.
Petitions carrying more than 6 million signatures — said to be the largest petition drive in history — were submitted to Congress in 1970. With help from New York Democratic Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Conyers resubmitted the legislation during each congressional session.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which coordinated the petition campaign, also kept continuous pressure on Congress for the holiday. Mass marches in 1982 for voting rights and 1983 to mark the 20th anniversary of King's dramatic speech in Washington, D.C., also contributed.
It took bipartisan support to overcome the opposition of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who labeled King a Communist, and President Reagan's lukewarm attitude toward the legislation, Lowery said.
In the final analysis, what may have sealed approval of the holiday was a compromise offered by Rep. Katie Hall, Indiana Democrat who marshalled support in the House for the legislation. Hall, responding to criticism that the holiday would be too close to the Christmas-New Year's week, moved its observance to the third Monday of the month. The notion of a three-day weekend, plus the fact that the third Monday often follows Super Bowl Sunday, helped put the measure over the top, supporters say.
Arguments concerning money dominated opposition to the holiday. Costs associated with lost services on the King holiday were estimated at $18 million for the federal government; at $7 million to Washington state; at $1.18 million to Seattle. The estimated total was an astronomical $8 billion for government and private sector combined.
"Every time we'd bring the bill up in the Legislature, people would say, '$7 million! Are you kidding?! What about all the people starving in the streets?!"' recalls Washington state Sen. George Fleming, Seattle Democrat, who has led legislative efforts since the early 1970s.
Another common argument, Fleming notes, was " 'why put Dr. King above other famous people?' They didn't think his legacy would stand the test of time."
Both arguments, Fleming feels, are used to conceal racist resistance to the holiday.
Most holiday proposals encounter strong opposition, particularly today. Moreover, just about every constituency has some day it would like to commemorate. Feminists have long fought for a Susan B. Anthony Day on the suffragist's birthday Feb. 15. The Irish would prefer to have St. Patrick's Day off, the Finns St. Urho's Day (March 16). Tree lovers and environmentalists can make a case for Arbor Day to be an official holiday. Commercial interests push Valentine's Day.
While legislation supporting these holidays has never gotten beyond the lip-service stage, special interests have created a number of holidays not universally observed. Longshoremen, for instance, take off Harry Bridges' birthday to honor the popular labor leader. In the south, Robert E. Lee's birthday has long been observed by various states on the third Monday of January. This creates an interesting historical contradiction for those that, like Virginia, are adding observance of King's birthday to that date as well.
Not specifically patriotic or religious, the King holiday does not fit any traditional category. But black leaders hope it will become a deeply spiritual day.
I think it should be devoted to some activity which expresses love of our fellow person, or spiritual recognition of some kind," says Dr. Donald G. Phelps, chancellor of Seattle Community College District, which for the past 11 years has conducted a widely attended memorial service in King's honor on his birthday. "As we've celebrated it in the past, it's become a day where more people come together in an ecumenical way — go to other churches, worship together the way we don't on Sunday — than any other. It's a day when we can honor Dr. King's principles, which are really American principles in their truest form.
"It shouldn't be a holiday where we all go fishing."