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Creating a New National Holiday

The campaign to make Martin Luther King, Jr., Day a national holiday began not long after Dr. King’s death.  But it would be more than 10 years before a bill came to vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.  That bill, in 1979, fell five votes short.

At the time, only two people had ever been honored with national holidays in America: George Washington and Christopher Columbus.  Many Americans who celebrated Dr. King’s life, vision, and achievements were unsure if a national holiday was the right way to honor him.  Even President Reagan himself had raised concerns, citing the cost.  

But when a bill to create a holiday in Dr. King’s honor finally reached his desk, he signed it proudly—making history once again.

Two years later, President Reagan honored Dr. King on King’s birthday with these stirring words:[i]

“When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began his career, the principles of social justice for which he stood were very controversial.  But by the end of his career, he was a deeply respected leader of international stature who helped lead an extraordinary revolution in America’s laws and customs.  His moving example of dignity in the face of threats and hatred gave the whole Nation a new hero to admire and emulate.

“Martin Luther King knew that America’s democracy was imperfect, but he also knew that America’s conscience was a powerful force for reform.  His unique combination of moral leadership and practical political wisdom enlisted America's conscience on the side of peaceful change.

“The memory of Martin Luther King is engraved in the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans.  It is appropriate that we remember him today and that we remember and honor the values for which he stood.”