Today honors the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader whose moral leadership and soaring oratory led the United States toward the legal abolition of segregation and racial discrimination.
He was assassinated in April 1968, but his words live on. Perhaps best known is his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 as he led the massive March on Washington. A year later, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was founded as a holiday promoted by labor unions in contract negotiations. After King’s death, Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a bill in Congress to make King’s birthday a national holiday, highlighting King’s activism on behalf of trade unionists. The King Center turned to support from the corporate community and the general public. The success of this strategy was cemented when musician Stevie Wonder released the single “Happy Birthday” to popularize the campaign in 1980 and hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. Six million signatures were collected for a petition to Congress to pass the law, termed by a 2006 The Nation article as “…the largest petition in favor of an issue in United States History.”
At the White House Rose Garden on November 2, 1983, Reagan signed a bill creating a federal holiday to honor King. It was observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.
In May 1990, the holiday was expanded further when President George H. W. Bush signed an extension making the week long celebration into a month-long celebration.