Martin Luther King, Jr., National Holiday

Martin Luther King, Jr., National Holiday/tiles/non-collection/c/c_041imgtile1.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration


After the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosemary Ryan of Kansas City, Kansas, wrote this letter to the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) expressing her desire for King’s January 15 birthday to be made a national holiday. “I want Dr. King’s birthday declared a national holiday to remind the whole world over, for centuries to come, that Martin Luther King Jr. suffered and sacrificed his life so that all mankind may one day, live together in brotherhood,” Ryan wrote.

Hundreds of other letters and postcards sent to the SCLC echoed Ryan’s message, along with thousands of petitions gathered from around the country and forwarded to Abernathy’s attention. Abernathy, who became president of the SCLC after King’s assassination, passionately advocated honoring King with a national holiday, and he directed a drive to collect signatures supporting the idea. Messages of support flowed in from elementary schools and churches to prestigious universities and rural towns. By April 1971, the SCLC had gathered more than 3 million signatures of support. Abernathy led a march on Washington to deliver the signature petitions, including Rosemary Ryan's, to Congress, where they became part of the records of the House Judiciary Committee.

At the time, Congress took no action on the holiday. It wasn’t until November 2, 1983, that legislation became law designating the third Monday of every January as the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Holiday. Representative Katie Hall managed its passage from her position as chair of the Post Office and Civil Service’s Subcommittee on Census and Population.

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