Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

The History of Martin Luther King Jr Day

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Clark chapter.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day or, as it’s officially known as, the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. is an American federal holiday, marking—as the name denotes—the activist’s birthday. It is observed on the third Monday of each January, which always falls around MLK’s birthday on the 15th.

President Ronald Reagan made the holiday an official law in 1983. It was first observed three years later.

The idea was originally promoted by labor unions. The bill first came to a vote in the United States House of Representatives in 1979. The opposition argued that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive and that a holiday to honor a private citizen was contradictory to the longstanding tradition, as King never held public office.

The King Center looked for support from corportate industries and the general public. The task was solidified though once Stevie Wonder released his single “Happy Birthday” in 1980 to popularize the campaign.

Six million signatures were collected for a petition to make Congress pass the law. According to The Nation, this was the “largest petition in favor of an issue in the U.S. history.”

At first, some states were hesitant to observe the holiday. Some called it by other names, and others tried to combine it with other holidays. For the first time, in 2000, all 50 states observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Other countries in addition to the United States honor Martin Luther King Jr. In the City of Toronto, the holiday is recongized, but all governmental and business services remain open. Ever since 1987, in the Netherlands, a Dr. Martin Luther King Tribute and Dinner are held in Wassenaar. And even in Japan, under Tadatoshi Akiba, Hiroshima’s mayer, a special banquet at the mayor’s office is held to unify the city for peace.


Monica Sager is a freelance writer from Clark University, where she is pursuing a double major in psychology and self-designed journalism with a minor in English. She wants to become an investigative journalist to combat and highlight humanitarian issues. Monica has previously been published in The Pottstown Mercury, The Week UK, Worcester Telegram and Gazette and even The Boston Globe. Read more of Monica’s previous work on her Twitter @MonicaSager3.