On November 2, 1983—29 years ago today—President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill to create a federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King, who was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39, made a lasting impact on America through his unending dedication to the struggle for civil rights and equality—both in his capacity as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and in his work with other civil rights activists.
Although nonviolent techniques had been used in boycotts and protests for decades, the philosophy of nonviolence became especially associated with him; in 1964, he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
In October 1983, roughly 15 years after preliminary legislation was introduced and following two petitions, the Senate voted for a national holiday to commemorate King, established on the third Monday in January. Two weeks later, President Reagan signed the bill into law, stating that King had “stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul.”
Reminding Americans about the difference King made, Reagan also noted that the work was not yet done: “But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day.”
Martin Luther King Day was first celebrated as a national holiday just over two years later, on January 20, 1986. However, it would be seven years until all fifty states observed the holiday. Today, the holiday is celebrated as a national day of service, calling for citizens to work together, bridge barriers, and strengthen communities—goals very much in line with King’s message.
Twenty-nine years after the holiday was established and forty-four years after King was killed, his legacy lives on. A year ago, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial was dedicated (click here for pictures from the dedication ceremony). With the construction of the memorial, King became the first African American to be honored on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
To read President Reagan’s remarks on signing the bill, check out this page from UCSB’s American Presidency Project.
Time magazine provides a brief history of Martin Luther King Day here.
To see a chronological summary of the development of Martin Luther King Day, check out this page from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
To see a photograph from the bill signing, check out this page from the White House blog.
Publications and collections that pay tribute to King are almost too numerous to list; here is a modest sampling:
To learn more about King, check out the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.
HarperOne published a collection of King’s writings and speeches: A Testament to Hope.
The University of Pennsylvania Press published Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice back in 2006.