A generation has grown up with the third Monday in January being Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Thus, it may be difficult for some to understand why there was a debate about whether or not to have a day of celebration for the great man.
The Work for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day
A campaign for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day started not long after King’s assassination in 1968. But the day did not become a federal holiday until 1983 when Pres. Ronald Reagan signed it into law. Even then, some were opposed to the holiday. Pres. Reagan initially was opposed to it, citing cost concerns.
But the matter did not end in 1983, and it took time for some states to get on board to make it a state holiday. In the early 1990s, Arizona received much criticism for its failure to have an official paid holiday after Gov. Evan Mechan rescinded an order from the previous governor, Bruce Babbit, who had made the day a holiday.
Eventually, Arizona recognized the day through a popular referendum (after an earlier one lost in 1990). New Hampshire was the last state to have a day named after MLK, adopting it in 1999 (the state had adopted the day as “Civil Rights Day” in 1991). South Carolina was the last state to adopt the holiday as a paid holiday for state employees, and that occurred in 2000.
Time marches on. Just as kids today may not understand how MLK Day was even an issue in the 1980s and 1990s, it is hard for me, born in the 1960s, to comprehend the violent discrimination that went on in the 1950s and 1960s. And I’m sure most of the kids who were alive in 1911 did not understand how people kept a race of people in slavery just fifty years earlier.
Humans can be pretty stupid, but fortunately, a lot of times we start to figure things out, even if it takes a long time. And we still have a lot to figure out when it comes to discrimination against others.
Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”
One person who does have great perception of human beings is Stevie Wonder. In 1980, when people were debating whether MLK Day should be a federal holiday, Stevie Wonder recorded a song asking why something so logical was taking so long. He released “Happy Birthday” in 1981.
In “Happy Birthday,” Wonder reminded people why Martin Luther King Jr. deserved a special holiday.
The time is overdue,
For people like me and you,
Who know the way to truth,
Is love and unity to all God’s children.
It should be a great event,
And the whole day should be spent,
In full remembrance
Of those who lived and died for the oneness of all people.
So let us all begin
We know that love can win
Let it out don’t hold it in
Sing it loud as you can,
Happy birthday to you.
So, crank it up and take some time to celebrate the birth of a great human being. Sing it loud as you can. Happy Birthday to You! And thanks.
Bonus MLK Songs: See a discussion of 15 songs inspired by MLK.