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How Martin Luther King Day Became a Federal Holiday

On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday, effective Jan. 20, 1986. As a result of this bill, Americans commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr.s birthday on the third Monday in January. Few Americans are aware of the history of Martin Luther King Day and the long battle to convince Congress to establish this holiday in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Congressman John Conyers, an African-American Democrat from Michigan, spearheaded the movement to establish MLK Day. Rep. Conyers worked in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and was elected to Congress in 1964, where he championed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Four days after Kings assassination in 1968, Conyers introduced a bill that would make Jan. 15 a federal holiday in Kings honor. But Congress was unmoved by Conyers entreaties and though he kept reviving the bill, it kept failing in Congress.

In 1970, Conyers convinced New Yorks governor and New York Citys mayor to commemorate Kings birthday, a move that the city of St. Louis emulated in 1971. Other localities followed, but it was not until the 1980s that Congress acted on Conyers bill. By this time, the congressman had enlisted the help of popular singer Stevie Wonder, who released the song Happy Birthday for King in 1981.

Conyers also organized marches in support of the holiday in 1982 and 1983.

Conyers was finally successful when he reintroduced the bill in 1983. But even in 1983 support was not unanimous. In the House of Representatives, William Dannemeyer, a Republican from California, led the opposition to the bill, arguing that it was too expensive to create a federal holiday and estimating that it would cost the federal government $225 million annually in lost productivity.

Reagans administration concurred with Dannemeyers arguments, but the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 for and 90 against.

When the bill reached the Senate, the arguments opposing the bill were less grounded in economics and more reliant