By Linda Tarrant-Reid
I remember when Stevie Wonder came to Washington, DC to lobby for the MLK holiday in the early part of 1979. I was working at WETA-TV, a PBS affiliate in Washington, DC, as a national publicist on the production of From Jump Street: A Story of Black Music, a 13-part music series, hosted by Oscar Brown, Jr. Wonder was among the crème de la crème of black musicians who were filmed for the series including: Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Carmen McRae, Quincy Jones, George Benson, Pearl Bailey, Jackie McLean, and Al Jarreau.
The following year, Stevie Wonder’s musical tribute, “Happy Birthday,” to Dr. King was released on his 1980 Hotter than July album. An ardent supporter of the Civil Rights activist, Wonder was at the forefront of the campaign to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. Wonder and King’s widow Coretta Scott King organized boycotts, lobbied local government officials, and presented a petition to Congress signed by six million supporters of the MLK Holiday in the early 1980s.
The struggle to gain recognition for the tireless work of Dr. King in the fight for equal rights had begun in April 1968, right after his assassination, when U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a bill to the House to make King’s birthday a federal holiday. The bill did not pass, but Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-New York) joined forces with Conyers to keep the issue front and center at every legislative session.
The election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency brought new support for the MLK holiday bill in 1977. Even with Carter’s support, the bill faced tremendous opposition. In the Senate, southern Republican Jesse Helms tried to pull out every trick in the book to block the bill. As the national campaign heated up with support from national groups, the legislation authorizing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was finally signed into law by a reluctant President Ronald Reagan in 1983. The holiday was not officially observed until January 1986 and by January 2000, all fifty states in the U.S. observed the holiday which falls on the third Monday in January, close to King’s birthday on January 15th.
Only twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia actually recognized MLK Day after it became a federal law in 1986. One of the last holdouts was Arizona. They were suppose to host the 1993 Super Bowl XXVII between the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills, but Arizona voters rejected the MLK holiday in 1990 and the National Football League pulled the plug on the bowl game and the game was moved to Pasadena, California.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed legislation making the MLK holiday not only a celebration of his legacy, but also a day of service and volunteerism in the spirit of the Civil Rights Activist. Communities all over America mobilize volunteers to help others by donating their time to a variety of causes.
Schools, government offices, banks and many businesses are closed to celebrate, honor and reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The same determination and focus that Dr. King brought to his fight for equal rights for all was evidenced in the campaign to establish a federal holiday to honor his work and achievements. It took fifteen years of persistence, insistence and dedication for the recognition of his legacy by the U.S. government. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is now open in Washington, DC on the National Mall. Since August, more than two million people have visited the memorial. For information about the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, visit: www.mlkmemorial.org.
Dr. King’s words resonate today:
We were here before the mighty words of the Declaration of Independence were etched across the pages of history. Our forebears labored without wages. They made cotton ‘king’. And yet out of a bottomless vitality, they continued to thrive and develop. If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. . . . Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963