Dr. King meeting with President Johnson and other civil rights activists
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
“Within a decade-and-a-half, federal workers would have another holiday, when President Ronald Reagan in November 1983 signed legislation ending a 15-year
struggle over a national holiday honoring the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterwards, at the White House Rose Garden ceremony, Reagan saluted the slain
civil rights leader as a man who “stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul.”
Proposals to honor Dr. King’s memory by designating his January 15 birthday as a federal holiday were first introduced following his 1968 assassination, and in
each subsequent Congress through the 98th. The House came close to approving one of these bills in November 1979, when, under suspension of the rules, it voted 252-133 for a bill designating January 15 a federal holiday. That action, however, fell four votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority required for passage.
Finally on August 2, 1983, the House approved legislation making the third Monday in January a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King, starting in 1986. Following a stormy debate on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate, by a 78 to 22 vote, passed the bill on October 19. Two weeks later, it became law with President Reagan’s signature.
Supporters of the bill argued that a federal holiday would provide genuine and deserved recognition to Dr. King and the civil rights movement that he led.
Opponents maintained that the nation did not need a tenth federal holiday, and cited its expense to the taxpayers—an estimated $220 to $240 million a year in lost
productivity in the federal workforce and more than $4 billion in the private sector.
Monday Holiday Law
“Congress approved the Monday Holiday Law in June 1968 to “provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays, and
established a legal public holiday in honor of Christopher Columbus.” Prior to the passage of this legislation, Washington’s Birthday was observed on February 22,
Memorial Day on May 30, and Veterans Day on November 11. The act changed the dates of these holidays to the third Monday in February, last Monday in May, and the fourth Monday in October. The newly created Columbus Day was also designated as a Monday holiday, to be celebrated on the second Monday in October.
By calling for the observance of these four holidays on a Monday, Congress felt there would be “substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the
Nation.” In addition, this legislation was perceived to:
* afford increased opportunities for families to be together, especially those families of which various members were separated by great distances;
* enable Americans to enjoy a wider range of recreational activities, since they would be afforded more time for travel;
* provide increased opportunities for pilgrimages to the historic sites connected with our holidays, thereby increasing participation in commemoration of
* afford greater opportunity for leisure at home so that Americans would be able to enjoy fuller participation in hobbies as well as educational and cultural
* stimulate greater industrial and commercial production by reducing employee absenteeism and enabling workweeks to be free from interruptions in the form of midweek holidays.
It was clear, the House Judiciary Committee argued in its April 1968 report on the Monday Holiday bill, that the proposal was “responsive to the needs and desires
of a great majority” of Americans. Support for the proposal was expressed by such major business groups as the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, National Association of Manufacturers, National Association of Travel Organizations, and National Retail Federation. There was also substantial support from the labor community, expressed by such organizations as the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO Government Employees Council, International
Amalgamated Transit Union, and National Association of Letter Carriers.
In addition, the Department of Labor, the Bureau of the Budget, the Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Civil Service Commission all endorsed the idea. Public
opinion polls conducted in connection with the proposal indicated that “almost 93 percent of the persons polled supported the concept of uniform Monday holiday
legislation, while a little more than 7 percent were opposed.”
Neither this act, nor any subsequent action by Congress or the President, mandated that the name of the holiday observed by federal employees in February be
changed from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day.”
Excerpted from Stephen W. Stathis (1999)Federal Holiday: Evolution and Application. CRS Report for Congress