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Good Question: How Did MLK Jr.’s Birthday Become A Nat’l Holiday?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – The third Monday of every January is one of ten national holidays that government employees get every year. Most children have no school and every state and federal employee receives a paid day off.

The first official observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a federal holiday was on Jan. 20, 1986 – 18 years after the Civil Rights leader was shot.

But David Chang, a professor of U.S. history at the University of Minnesota, says the idea for the holiday came just four days after the assassination.

“Now, we take it for granted that it’s a holiday … but just like the Civil Rights Movement, it took a lot of work and many years of struggle in order to make this happen,” Chang said.

According to the King Center, U.S. Representative John Conyers first introduced legislation for a Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday on April 8, 1968.

Congress didn’t take up the legislation until 1979, when it failed in the U.S. House by five votes. Despite rallies, petitions of more than three million signatures and lobbying from Coretta Scott King, the legislation had several mainstream political opponents at the time.

“There was opposition from the get-go,” he said.

In 1973, Illinois became the first state to make the day a state holiday. Massachusetts and Connecticut followed their lead the following year.

In 1980, Stevie Wonder released his hit song “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. King, and King Center staff began an intensive national-organizing effort.

In 1983, both legislative branches passed the legislation, and President Reagan signed it into law on Nov. 3, 1983. It went into effect in 1986.

“Congress was responding to mass public action, to petitions, to songs, to marches, events and rallies,” Chang said.

By 1986, 17 states had made the day an official state holiday. By 1989, it was 44.

A few high-profile states held out, including Arizona, whose governor had rescinded an executive order creating the holiday.

The NFL decided to send the Rose Bowl to California rather than Arizona in 1993.

“Arizona lost the Super Bowl because of this issue,” Chang said.

In 1999, New Hampshire became the last state to officially sign the legislation into law. In 2000, South Carolina required Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid day off, rather than the choice between that and three other Confederate holidays.

According to the Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs, 35 percent of private companies offer MLK Day as a paid holiday.

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