MLK Day Timeline: How the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday became a holiday

Martin Luther King Jr., gives his "I Have a Dream" speech to a crowd before the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. The widely quoted speech became one of his most famous.

It's been almost 54 years since the world tragically lost Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to violence. Each year in January, the United States remembers the civil rights leader with a day in Dr. King's honor.

Though Dr. King lost his life in April 1968, it would be 15 years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day would be declared a federal holiday, and another three years before it would be observed.

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For Millennials and Gen Z, who grew up with educational films like "Our Friend, Martin" in school, it's hard to imagine not having a day dedicated to the civil rights champion. But the story of how MLK Day went from concept to fruition, like its namesake, is a story of perseverance. 

Starting in 1968, the year Dr. King was assassinated and less than five years after his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation for a federal holiday to commemorate King. Rep. Conyers would introduce legislation in every legislative session from 1968 to 1983.

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March 1965: American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) and his wife Coretta Scott King lead a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery; among those pictured are, front row, politician an

President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, with observance on the third Monday of January each year. Born in 1929, King's actual birthday is January 15. The holiday was first observed in 1986.

While attempts were made to have a federally recognized holiday, numerous U.S. states recognized holidays in honor of King. Connecticut did so in 1973. Illinois adopted a commemoration day in 1969, and made it a paid holiday also in 1973.

Other states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Washington

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: People attend the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade on January 20, 2020 in Washington, DC, United States on January 20, 2020. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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Here is a timeline of the events that ultimately led to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day being observed as a federal holiday.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: Timeline of events

1968

  • April 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, TN.
  • April 8 – Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) introduces legislation on the House floor to establish a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

1971

  • Congress receives more than six million signatures in support of the federal holiday, but no legislative action is taken.

1973

  • Illinois is first state to adopt MLK Day as a state holiday

1973-1979

  • Several states enact statewide King holidays including Illinois, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey.

1979

  • The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) denounces amendment to commemorate the King Holiday on a Sunday.  Anything less than a full legal holiday is unacceptable.
  • Congressman John Conyers' (D-MI) bill for a King Holiday is defeated on the House floor by five votes.

1981

  • January 15 - CBC supports a benefit concert, rally and march in Washington, D.C. to gain attention for the Holiday Bill. Stevie Wonder is the event sponsor, and his song "Happy Birthday" becomes an anthem for the movement.

1983

  • Congress passes, President Reagan signs, legislation declaring the third Monday in January as a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and his service to the country.

1986

  • January 20 - The first national celebration of MLK Day takes place.

1987 

  • Arizona governor Evan Mecham rescinds MLK Day as his first act in office, setting off a boycott of the state.

1989 

  • State MLK Day holiday is adopted in 44 states.

1991 

  • The NFL moves the 1993 Super Bowl site from Phoenix, Ariz., to Pasadena, Calif., because of the MLK Day boycott.

1992  

  • Arizona's citizens vote to enact MLK Day. The Super Bowl is held in Tempe, Ariz. in 1996.

~1993 

  • MLK Day is held in some form, sometimes under a different name, in all fifty states.

1999 

  • New Hampshire becomes the last state to adopt MLK Day as a paid state holiday, replacing its optional Civil Rights Day.

2000 

  • Utah becomes the last state to recognize MLK Day by name, renaming its Human Rights Day state holiday.
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Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 - 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his 'I Have A Dream' speech.   (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images) ( )