It took 32 long years–relatively almost as long as Dr. King’s life was short; he was assassinated at age 39–for Martin Luther King Day to be recognized as a national holiday.  

“This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday,” the widowed Coretta Scott King infamously said after then President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983.  Yet despite the bill being signed into law back before I was even born, it wasn’t until the year 2000–when I was a freshman in high school, mind you–that Martin Luther King Day become a nationally recognized holiday for all people, all the time.

Fifteen years earlier, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr, was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.  Mere months after his death, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation that sought to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday.  Around the same time, The King Memorial Center, in Atlanta, was founded.  They sponsored the first annual observance of King’s birthday, in January 1969, nearly ten and half years before it would become an official government sanctioned holiday.  Before then, however, some of the more progressive individual states, including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut, passed their own legislature to celebrate Dr. King.

Conspiracy and politics, primarily driven by nothing more than the sheer, blatant, racism that Dr. King fought against, prevented the rest of the nation from following suit.  Three years after Michigan Congressman John Conyers introduced the preliminary legislation to make King’s birthday a holiday in 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference–which King spearheaded from its inception until his tragic death–presented Congress with a petition signed by more than three million people in support of a King holiday.  The bill sat, abandoned in Congress until the former governor of Georgia, now the first Democratic President since Lyndon JohnsonPresident Jimmy Carter, vowed to support the King family in making the King holiday a federal holiday.

Energized by the President’s support, Coretta testified before Congress, and organized a nationwide lobby to support the bill.  Sadly, Conyer’s legislation was defeated in the House by a miserly five votes.  Coretta didn’t give up.  She continued her fight, testifying before Congress several more times and mobilizing governors, mayors and city council members across the nation.  Stevie Wonder even joined the fight, lending his voice to Coretta’s cause, and releasing the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980.  Together, they presented a second petition to Congress, this time with double the signatures–six million supporters.  This time, the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 to 90.

Once the bill passed in the House, it had to move to the Senate floor, where it faced tougher opposition.  Republican Senators John P. East and Jesse Helms of North Carolina led smear campaigns against King, alleging that he had associations with communists and claiming that he cheated on his wife, and listing these as reasons not to honor him with a federal holiday.  Helms read a detailed paper on the Senate floor, and provided a 300-page supplemental document to the members of the Senate detailing King’s communist connections, which outraged some Senators so badly, including New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that he threw the document to he ground, stomped on it and deemed it a “packet of filth.”

Helms also tried justify his actions by attempting to explain that anyone who opposed a King holiday would “unfairly” be called a racist, claiming that the Senate was being bullied into elevating King to “the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach that of Washington’s” whilst at the same time claiming that King’s achievements were nowhere near Washington’s.

Right before the bill passed in the Senate–in fact, the day before–District Judge John Lewis Smith Jr. denied Helms’ request to unseal FBI surveillance tapes of King that were due to remain sealed until 2027.

President Reagan signed the bill into law in November 1983, and the first official holiday was observed three years later, on the third Monday of January, in 1986.

At that time, only 27 out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. honored the holiday.  All three Arizona House Republicans, including current Senator and former presidential hopeful John McCain, voted against the bill in 1983.  Arizona went on to ignore pleas from the President and its own governor to acknowledge the holiday, even losing the NFL’s support when the league moved the Super Bowl XXVII from the Sun Devil Stadium, in Tempe, Arizona, to California in protest of Arizona’s refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Arizona was not alone in its openly stubborn contempt for the federal law.  In 2000–almost 20 years after the law’s official passage, and 32 years after King died–South Carolina became the last state to sign a bill recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.

Incidentally, it was also the same year they pulled the Confederate flag down from its statehouse dome.