A Brief Primer on MLK Day

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Every year, on the third Monday of January, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (commonly abbreviated to MLK Day) is celebrated nationwide in the U.S. The holiday, like other Monday holidays such as Memorial Day and Labor Day, is a federal holiday, meaning that certain places and businesses that might otherwise be open will instead be closed. Learn more about MLK Day closures, history, and other topics with this brief primer.

When did MLK Day start?

Although Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely known for his crucial role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, MLK Day did not become a national day of service until 1985, 17 years after his assassination and two years after President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law.

How did MLK Day become a federal holiday?

Prior to President Reagan instituting MLK Day as a federal holiday, the idea for MLK Day had been introduced in Congress nearly two decades prior. The delay in establishing MLK Day occurred in part because, despite the strides that Martin Luther King, Jr., made for civil rights in the U.S., he remained a polarizing figure throughout his lifetime and even into the 1970s. Historians say that racism undoubtedly played a part, as many people did not want the first federal holiday devoted to a non-presidential figure to be dedicated to a Black person.

Between when Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced a bill to make MLK Day a federal holiday in 1968 and when President Jimmy Carter advanced the bill to a failed vote in Congress, several states established the holiday within their borders, including Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Eventually, King’s widow Coretta King Scott and the musician Stevie Wonder, who wrote his hit “Happy Birthday” to explicitly endorse instating MLK Day nationwide, gathered six million signatures on a petition in favor of making MLK Day a federal holiday. After they delivered this petition to Congress in 1982, it didn’t take long for President Reagan to instate the holiday.

Why is MLK Day on the third Monday of January?

As with Presidents’ Day, MLK Day falls near, but not always on, the birthday of the person whom it celebrates. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15, 1929, but since January 15 doesn’t always fall on a Monday, the holiday has been designated as the third Monday of January to approximate his birthday while allowing people to take three-day weekends.

What institutions are closed for MLK Day?

Since MLK Day is a federal holiday, most banks will be closed since they follow the same closure schedule as the Federal Reserve, a government institution. Other government operations such as post offices and public schools close for MLK Day, though other mail and shipping organizations, as well as private schools, may remain open. Many restaurants, shops, and other small businesses may remain open, though some will close in celebration.

How can I celebrate MLK Day?

Much of MLK Day involves symbolism rather than activism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help to make the day an occasion that would make its namesake proud. For a list of several ways that you can celebrate MLK Day no matter where you live, click here.

How will you be observing MLK Day? Share your ideas in the comments to inspire others!

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