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Here in the United States, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday as a legal holiday on the third Monday in January of each year. The actual birthday of Dr. King was on January 15th, however the third Monday is the holiday standard. It is interesting to note that there are only four United States federal holidays which commemorate an individual person, and this is one of those days.

Martin Luther King Day started out as a holiday which labor unions fought for in negotiations with employers. They did so because Martin Luther King was a great proponent of labor unions and fair employment for all Americans. After King’s death in 1968 many labor unions lobbied to have King’s birthday become a national holiday in celebration of his life and activism on behalf of trade unions.

Elected largely because of the backing of trade unions, President Jimmy Carter endorsed the King Day bill and unions took the action and ran with it to garner support from Corporate America, unfortunately he was never able to sign the day into law. Finally, in 1981 a petition to Congress to pass the law was signed by six million people.

On November 2, 1983 President Ronald Regan reluctantly singed a bill into law creating a federal holiday to honor King. The first official Martin Luther King holiday was celebrated on January 20, 1986.

In addition to Ronald Regan, Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition to the new holiday. He questioned whether Dr. King was important enough to receive such an honor partly due to his opposition to the Vietnam War and purported Communist connections.

January 17, 2000 was the first time which Martin Luther King Day was officially observed in all 50 states. Before that date Arizona and New Hampshire did not observe the day.

Even though all of the states now honor the holiday, many did not name the day specifically after King. In Utah the holiday was known as “Human Rights Day.” In the year 2000 Governor Michael Leavitt signed a bill officially changing the name of the holiday from Human Rights Day to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

To this day, the holiday in Arizona and New Hampshire is known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Day.

Interestingly enough, even though King Day is a federal holiday and an official state holiday in every state in the Union, it is often not observed by small companies other than banks. Many large corporations close but smaller businesses tend to remain open. However, as the years pass, more and more companies, small and large, are beginning to observe the day.

Senator Harris Wofford and Congressman John Lewis wrote a bill which was signed into law on August 23, 1994 by President Bill Clinton. This legislation aimed to change the Martin Luther King Day to one of volunteer service and citizen action rather than as an observance of King himself.

As each year passes, more and more states seem to be moving towards celebrating the King holiday as a day of service. Dr. King was all about citizen action and service to your fellow man, so I think he would be very satisfied at this movement.

For more information, lesson plans and coloring pages:

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