MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — People across the country celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday.

It’s been recognized as a national holiday for more than 30 years. So how did Martin Luther King Jr. Day become a national holiday? Good Question.

Much like Dr. King struggled for equal rights, his supporters struggled to get him honored in a special way, after his death. National holidays, like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, don’t become national holidays right away.

It takes an act of Congress, and then some, to make it happen. From historic marches and campaigns to his famous speeches, Dr. King’s legacy continues long after his death. King is one of the only people in history whose name is a national holiday.

“We don’t see too many figures in American history getting that honor,” Larry Jacobs said.

Jacobs is a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. He said federal holidays don’t happen overnight, and it’s ultimately up to Congress to make it happen.

Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and four days later, there was legislation to create a holiday in his name.  But it didn’t happen until 15 years later.

“There were concerns about cost to the government and to employers who would respect it,” Jacobs said.

Federal holidays mean federal employees don’t go to work, but still get paid. Jacobs said cost wasn’t the only road block.

“For the southerners who had resisted the Civil Rights movement, it was something they were quite bitter about,” Jacobs said while speaking about former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’ opposition to the holiday.

In 1983, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan finally signed the legislation that made Martin Luther King Jr. Day the newest national holiday. And Jacobs says it’s unlikely we’ll see another National holiday anytime soon.

“There are always people that have campaigns behind them, but I think it’s going to be pretty hard,” Jacobs said.

One of those people is Susan B. Anthony.  Lawmakers have proposed a Susan B. Anthony federal holiday in the past, but so far it hasn’t happened.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was initially proposed for King’s birthday, Jan. 15. But it was moved to the third Monday in January after concerns it was too close to New Year’s and Christmas.

Initially, several states contested the holiday, believing the Civil Rights movement was about more than one person. Arizona didn’t recognize Martin Luther King Day until 1992, after a tourist boycott.

John Lauritsen

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