Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 90 this year — A brief timeline of the origins of MLK Day

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The History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The late Martin Luther King Jr. was born on Jan. 15, 1929 in Atlanta . This year, he would have celebrated his 90th birthday.

» RELATED: King District remains closed at busiest time of year

It’s been nearly 51 years since Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. The 39-year-old, in town to support a sanitation workers’ strike, was struck by a bullet while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. He was pronounced dead upon arriving at the hospital.

The life and legacy of the civil rights icon is now celebrated all over the country on the third Monday in January. This year, MLK Day lands on Monday, Jan. 21.

» RELATED: From service projects to parades, here are the best ways to celebrate MLK Day in Atlanta

Atlanta’s King District, home to the landmark King Center established in 1968 by King’s wife, Coretta Scott, following the death of her husband, remains a popular commemorative site to this day. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people visited the district’s park in honor of the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

But with no resolution to the government shutdown in sight ahead of the 2019 holiday, many were worried the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, which is run by the National Park Service, would remain closed. It had shut its doors on Dec. 22.

Luckily, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is contributing $83,500 in grant funding to help reopen the park starting Saturday, Jan. 19 through Atlanta’s Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 3.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a written statement that “we felt it was important we do our part to ensure that the historical landmarks be accessible to the public.”

» RELATED: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Atlanta: Other historic sites

The Center is also holding a 10-day celebration with a workshop, children’s book program and its commemorative 10 a.m. service at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“Atlanta is proud to serve as the cradle of the American civil rights movement,” William Pate, president and CEO of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in a statement to The AJC. “While the temporary closure of Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park hinders the experience our guests hoped for during their visit, our city is fortunate to have many other civil rights tourism experiences available, including Center for Civil and Human Rights, APEX Museum and The King Center.”

Find more local events to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

A brief timeline of the rocky origins of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

1968

Months after King’s death, Michigan Congressman John Conyers Jr. introduced preliminary legislation to mark the civil rights icon’s birthday (Jan. 15) a federal holiday.

1971

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference presented Congress with a petition in support of a holiday. More than 3 million people signed it.

1979

On Jan. 4, 1979, Former President Jimmy Carter pledged support for the bill, which had languished on Capitol Hill for nearly a dozen years since Conyers introduced it. According to Politico, Carter’s support was considered a “turning point.” King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, also testified before Congress and organized a nationwide lobby in support of the legislation.

In November, the bill was defeated by five votes. Coretta continued to mobilize officials and fight for the federal holiday.

1980

Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” on his album Hotter Than July. The song “served as an unofficial commercial to call up people to sign the petition for a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,” according to Genius. 

1981

On Jan. 15, Wonder headlined the King Center’s Rally for Peace Press Conference in Washington, D.C. to call for a national holiday. It was “the largest gathering of blacks in Washington since African Liberation Day in 1973,” according to the Washington Post. Wonder joined Coretta Scott King in the fight for a King holiday and together, they presented another petition to Congress. At least 6 million people signed the petition. 

1983

The bill passed the House by 53 votes, but the Senate was another story. In fact, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms actually introduced a 400-page filibuster accusing King of being a communist, which Senators Ted Kennedy and Daniel Moynihan decried as “filth.”

Still, the bill passed the Senate by 12 votes and on Nov. 2, 1983, Former President Ronald Reagan approved the creation of the holiday.

1986

The first official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was held on Jan. 20, 1986. Stevie Wonder headlined a commemorative concert in King’s honor.

1990

Arizona lawmakers contested the holiday, with some hesitant to pass MLK Day as a state holiday. The holiday was then put up for a voter referendum in November. Then the National Football League got involved.


Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue threatened to pull Super Bowl XXVII out of Arizona over the political debate, and when the voter referendum on the holiday was rejected, the Super Bowl was officially moved to California. This cost Arizona an estimated $500 million in revenue, the Cronkite News Service reported.

1992

After another voter referendum, Arizona approved the statewide King holiday.

2000

Jan. 17, 2000, was the first time the holiday was officially observed in all 50 states. South Carolina was the last to approve a paid King holiday for state employees. Before this, employees could choose between celebrating MLK Day or one of three different Confederate holidays.

2006

South Carolina’s Greenville County became the last U.S. county to officially adopt MLK Day as a paid holiday on Jan. 16, 2006. The county council had voted against a city holiday four times.

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