Reagan Signs into Law National Holiday

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Reagan Signs into Law National Holiday

Newspaper article

By: Anonymous

Date: November 3, 1983

Source: "Reagan Signs into Law National Holiday." The Post-Standard (November 3, 1983).

About the Author: This article was contributed by a staff writer for the Post-Standard, a newspaper serving the city of Syracuse, New York, and its surrounding localities. The author is unknown.


American clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) held that all citizens of the United States—and all peoples of the world—should have equal rights. He stated that all Americans should have the right to work, pursue an education, and use all the facilities available in the United States. King held the ideal that only peaceful (nonviolent) means should be used to settle disagreements.

King became a minister like his father and grandfather. He married Coretta Scott after both had attended college in Boston, Massachusetts. The couple then moved to Montgomery, Alabama. King hoped to help peacefully settle the racial problems the community was having between African Americans and whites. In 1955, King led a lengthy protest against busing laws in Montgomery after African-American civil rights activist Rosa Parks (1913–2005) was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man while riding a city bus. Over the next few years, King led peaceful protests to change existing laws that barred African Americans from using public facilities and services reserved for white Americans, such as drinking fountains, eating establishments, and restrooms. In 1963, King led a March on Washington, D.C. in which he gave his famous I Have a Dream speech. In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, after leading a rally for African American sanitation workers who were protesting inequitable wages with comparable white workers.

After King's death, support grew to establish a day to honor his activism with regard to civil rights. Coretta Scott King staged the first observance of King's birthday. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) first introduced a Congressional bill to establish a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. When the bill failed, six million signatures were submitted to the U.S. Congress in support of the holiday. Conyers and Representative Shirley Chisholm (D-New York) resubmitted the Congressional bill several times. The 1982 and 1983 civil rights marches in Washington, D.C. added urgency and additional pressures on members of Congress to pass the bill.

In November 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill declaring that the third Monday of every January, beginning in 1986, would be celebrated as a national holiday, named Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The day occurs each year around the time of King's birth on January 15. The first observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was January 20, 1986. Beginning in 2000, the day became an official national holiday in all fifty states.



With Martin Luther King's widow at his side, President Reagan signed legislation Wednesday he once opposed that honors the slain civil rights leader with a national holiday each year. Reagan said King had "stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul" in battling racial discrimination.

Congressional leaders and veterans of the civil rights movement, including Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, filled the Rose Garden for the signing ceremony.

The proceedings climaxed as the crowd softly sang "We Shall Overcome"—the anthem of King's nonviolent crusade against segregation.

His widow, Coretta Scott King, told the crowd, "America is a more democratic nation, a more just nation, a more peaceful nation because Martin Luther King became her pre-eminent non-violent commander."

While saying the nation had made huge strides in civil rights, Reagan declared, "traces of bigotry still mar America."

He said King's holiday should serve as reminder to follow the principles that King espoused: "Thou shalt love thy god with all they heart, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."

Recalling Kings' historic address to 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, at the height of civil rights battles, Reagan said:

"If American history grows from two centuries to 29, his words that day will never be forgotten: 'I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

The legislation makes the third Monday in January a legal public holiday, beginning in 1986.

For the day of the signing ceremony, at least, civil rights leaders put aside their policy differences with the administration and their anger over Reagan's earlier opposition to honoring him with a national holiday.

"Well, we've all had high and low moments, and this is one of his high moments," said Jackson, an outspoken Reagan critic and newly announced candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Jackson said the only thing that mattered was Reagan's signature on the bill.

"The effect is that the civil rights movement and its place in American history is institutionalized, and that's very significant." Jackson said.

Reagan originally had expressed concern over the cost of honoring King with a national holiday, and said he would have preferred a day of recognition.

At a news conference October. 19, Reagan said he decided to sign the legislation "since they (congress) seem bent on making it a national holiday." At that same session, Reagan publicly speculated on whether secret FBI files would show that King was a Communist sympathizer. For that remark, the resident later apologized to Mrs. King.

Reagan also wrote former New Hampshire Gov. Meldrin Thomson that the public's perception of King was "based on an image, not reality."

Mrs. King told reporters she had accepted Reagan's apology for his news conference remark. As for his letter to Thomson, she said, "I am not questioning motives at this point. I think we have to accept what people say, and then we watch what they do."

White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes noted Reagan's apology to Mrs. King and said, "I don't think a day like today calls for discussion from us on that kind of controversy."


The actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. in leading nonviolent protests against racial discrimination and segregation in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s played an important role in persuading many Americans of all races and backgrounds to support the cause of civil rights. After his death, the struggle for racial justice continued. King became a symbol to people who were discriminated against because of their race. His life symbolized the courage and perseverance that one person can maintain when believing wrongs had been committed by one race onto another race of people. His death symbolized the extremes that one person must sometimes go to in order to stand up for deep-rooted moral and ethical principles.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Center (or sometimes simply called The King Center) is a research institute located in Atlanta, Georgia, within the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. King's birthplace, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, and King's final resting place are also located within the grounds. The King Center was established to memorialize King, to promote his teachings, and to preserve his papers and historical documents.

The lectures, speeches, and dialogues that King used in thirteen years of civil rights activities united a generation of Americans to make significant improvements in U.S. society. He inspired many people with his charismatic leadership skills, courage, and devotion to a cause that eventually ended his life. King's actions, words, and commitment gave hope and direction to African Americans and the poor in the United States and to disadvantaged people throughout the world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is observed each year as a day to emphasize the principles that King believed are important in the United States and throughout the world. Among those principles are nonviolent direct action, peace, rational and nondestructive social change, volunteerism, social justice, and class and racial equity. The holiday is an observance of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The day honors the man who is known as one of the greatest American leaders of racial equality and justice. As Coretta Scott King stated in a biography of her husband, "This is not a black holiday; it is a peoples' holiday. And it is the young people of all races and religions who hold the keys to the fulfillment of this dream."



I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Future of Multicultural America, edited by James Echols. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2004.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Strength to Love. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

――――――. Stride Toward Freedom. New York: Harper and Row, 1958.

――――――. Why We Can't Wait. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Kotz, Nick. The Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws That Changed America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Ling, Peter J. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Web sites

Coretta Scott King, The King Center. "The Meaning of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday." 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

The King Center. 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

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Reagan Signs into Law National Holiday

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