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The controversy involved in making Martin Luther King, Jr. Day a holiday

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The third Monday of each January celebrates the life of civil rights champion Martin Luther King Jr. While today is a reminder to Americans to be of service to their communities, the road to getting the holiday established was marked by controversy. NPR's Alana Wise reports.

ALANA WISE, BYLINE: Almost immediately after MLK was gunned down at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., supporters began calling for an official holiday to celebrate the civil rights giant. But it would take another 15 years for a president to sign the holiday into law.

CLARISSA MYRICK-HARRIS: I remember this time frame very well.

WISE: That was Clarissa Myrick-Harris, professor of Africana studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta. She was in her early teens when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

MYRICK-HARRIS: Four days later, Congressman John Conyers introduced legislation on the U.S. House floor to establish a federal holiday honoring King. But, of course, it went nowhere at that point in time.

WISE: While Martin Luther King today is widely revered for his work in social justice, that wasn't the case in the 1960s. A 1963 Gallup poll found that 41% of American adults viewed King unfavorably. The percentage of Americans who disapproved of King spiked to 69% by the mid-'60s, as King's profile rose.

MYRICK-HARRIS: You have to understand, you know, much of the country did not want integration. They did not want equal rights. They did not want equity for everyone - every group in this country, all the marginalized people and certainly not people of color. So that, unfortunately, was the case. There was pushback for establishing a national holiday for King.

WISE: Meanwhile, the slave-owning Confederate General Robert E. Lee, has had a holiday in states as early as 1917. Two states, Mississippi and Alabama, still celebrate King-Lee day as a joint celebration of the two men.

MYRICK-HARRIS: You have to keep in mind also that at the time of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. Was not the most popular person, even in the Black community.

WISE: Despite the controversy that surrounded King both in life and death, there were vocal supporters of making a federal holiday to commemorate his life in service. Among the biggest supporters in this pursuit were King's wife, civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, and musician and humanitarian Stevie Wonder. Emory University associate professor Crystal Sanders said this.

CRYSTAL SANDERS: The King Center led that move to continue fighting for this federal holiday. And they got support from, I would say, an unlikely source, but it shows us the ways in which using the support of musicians and other members of pop culture can be relevant in political campaigns. Stevie Wonder releases the song "Happy Birthday" in 1981 to galvanize national support for a King holiday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) 'Cause we all know in our minds that there ought to be a time that we can set aside to show just how much we love you. And I'm sure you would agree, what could fit more perfectly than to have a world party on the day you came to be.

WISE: Two years after the song's release, a bill to commemorate the holiday passed with bipartisan support. It was signed into law by President Reagan to be celebrated on the third Monday in January each year. At the first official celebration of the holiday in 1986, Stevie Wonder would once again perform in King's honor.

Alana Wise, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY")

WONDER: (Singing) Happy birthday, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday. I just never understood how a man who died for good could not have a day that would... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.