Image Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society via Wikimedia Commons
NEW YORK—This Monday, Americans across the country will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day—always on the third Monday in January, a day to honor the life of the Civil Rights hero who changed the United States for better. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, but wasn’t necessarily hailed as a hero by all right away—in fact, it was a long road to celebrating him with an annual federal holiday. reports that Dr. King was “the first modern private citizen to be honored with a federal holiday,” with the first big push to create a holiday in honor of him coming just a few days after his assassination. Democratic Congressman John Conyers, of Michigan, was the one to take the floor and pitch the idea—but he was mostly ignored. Conyers was also a member of the Civil Rights movement himself; he was one of the few Black Americans in Congress at the time, and had visited Selma in support of Dr. King in 1965. History reports that Conyers continued to push for the establishment of a holiday honoring Dr. King year after year. 

Conyers went on to be a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which still exists today. He and the rest of the CBC worked hard for 15 years to establish a holiday in honor of Dr. King.

Support for the holiday grew in the 70s, USA Today reported. A number of states including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut created statewide holidays. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter called on Congress to vote on the King Holiday Bill. It was defeated by five votes in the house that November. 

The bill’s defeat encouraged Stevie Wonder to get involved, and in 1980 he released the song “Happy Birthday” in support of enacting a national holiday, USA Today reported. Wonder began working alongside Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, to garner support for the holiday. Meanwhile, the CBC had collected six million signatures in support of the holiday, according to

The final battle came on the Congressional floor, when Republican senator Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, filibustered another attempt to pass legislation in support of a holiday, reported. The next day, the bill passed 78-22, and President Ronald Regan immediately signed it into law. 

The cast and crew behind "Selma" the movie honored Martin Luther King Jr. in 2019. David Oyelowo starred as Dr. King. Image via SelmaMovie on Twitter
The holiday was official as of January 1983, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing from there. Several states combined Martin Luther King Jr. Day with holidays that celebrated Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, whose birthday fell on January 19. reports that it wasn’t until the year 2000 that every state in the U.S. finally observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day—although a handful of states do still celebrate it in conjunction with Lee’s birthday. 

The King Center, which Coretta Scott King founded in in 1968, writes, “The Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday celebrates the life and legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America.” This year, the Center will observe the holiday with a variety of virtual events and community service projects. Tonight, Saturday, January 15, at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, the Center will stream its Beloved Community awards ceremony on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Awards will be presented to Simone Biles, Malala Yousafzai, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and more. 

Closer to home, there are endless movies, books and documentaries available to help everyone honor Martin Luther King Jr. day in their own way. “Selma,” arguably the most famous movie about Dr. King, is available to stream on Hulu and Peacock. The documentary “I Am MLK Jr.” is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV Plus and more. 

However you choose to honor or learn more about Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, it’s important to remember the long journey it took our country to get here—and the journey were are still on to fully realize Dr. King’s dream.