Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday of January every year, but each holiday comes and goes with many celebrants knowing little about the holiday or how we ended up celebrating it the way we do.
If you’d like to know more about MLK Day (which is on Monday, Jan. 17 this year), here’s everything you need to know about the holiday celebrating the historic civil rights leader.
The holiday was proposed quickly after MLK’s assasination
Few public figures have earned a public holiday as quickly as the civil rights leader. Just four days after MLK Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Rep. John Conyers introduced legislation to establish the holiday.
Illinois was the first state to adopt the holiday
Before it was a national holiday, MLK Jr. Day was slowly adopted piecemeal by various states, beginning with Illinois, which established a state holiday in 1973.
It took over 15 years to establish a national holiday
After a failed attempt in 1979 that nearly established MLK Day under the Jimmy Carter administration, the day finally became a national holiday with the passage of a bill in 1983. The holiday was first celebrated in 1986 during Reagan's administration.
Reagan opposed the holiday he established
Along with Senator Jesse Helms, who argued the holiday would cost the country $12 billion in lost productivity, President Reagan worried MLK’s Communist sympathies would send the wrong message if the minister was made a national hero.
It's close to, but not on, MLK’s birthday
The third Monday in January falls close to MLK’s birthday but obviously the moving holiday doesn’t land right on it. The pioneering minister was born on January 15, 1929.
Only one other American birthday is a national holiday
President’s Day in February vaguely aligns to George Washington’s birthday, putting MLK in good company.
It’s only one of two national days of service
In 1994 Congress transformed the holiday from a day off of work to a day on, for all Americans to perform volunteer service. It’s only one of two days with that status, the other being September 11.