MLK Holiday Origins

March 31, 2021

Birthday Backstory

He’s one of only two Americans we celebrate with a federal holiday.

How Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a national celebration.


  • Martin Luther King Jr. born Jan. 15, 1929.
  • The pastor, civil rights leader & youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (at 35) was killed in 1968, at 39.
  • Four days after his death, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a trailblazing African-American congressman, began advocating to make MLK’s birthday a federal holiday. He presented the bill every Congress until it was established in 1983.

How Did It Gain Support?

  • 1979: Pres. Carter publicly pledged support; Coretta Scott King, MLK’s widow, began lobbying Congress for the holiday – but the first vote failed.
  • 1983: Momentum gathered. Hundreds of thousands gathered in D.C. to mark 20 yrs since the March on Washington (when King made his famous “I have a dream…” speech). Congress passed the holiday into law.
“Dr. King’s was truly a prophetic voice that reached out over the chasms of hostility, prejudice, ignorance, and fear to touch the conscience of America. He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood.”

Pres. Ronald Reagan on January 18, 1986, on observing the first MLK holiday – three years after Congress approved the holiday bill.

Why It Matters

Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington are the only Americans to have a national holiday observed in their honor.

While the federal holiday passed in 1983, it took longer for all the states to *also* celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In 1999, New Hampshire was the last state to pass legislation to recognize the day.

Stevie Wonder wrote his famous song “Happy Birthday” in 1980 and released it as a rallying cry for the promotion of the holiday. Though MLK Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, his birthday is celebrated on the third Monday in January in order to remain consistent with other federal holidays.

A good source on more on the holiday: CLICK HERE

by Jenna Lee,