Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday ~ things you may not know


WMNF always marches in the Tampa Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Parade. We hope you will join us this year – more information on that is here. We are position #107, and are meeting at Gate #1, Columbus & 14th St (Republica de Cuba). You can view the route map from last year here.

How did having a parade become a tradition on MLK Day? St. Petersburg has a HUGE MLK Day parade, which will be in its 34th year on Monday, as do cities all over the US. The parade route has switched in St. Pete, with the parade now going from the Pier area to Tropicana Field.

Were the parades prompted by the famous quote of Dr. King’s?*

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

He spoke about the human impulse for recognition, like the drum major who leads the parade. Creating a holiday honoring Dr. King also reflected that desire for recognition–recognition of the vital presence of the African American communities throughout the country; recognition of the black civil rights movement; recognition that American communities are entwined.

photo by Charles Moore
photo by Charles Moore

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Holiday took years to become a federal holiday. It was first proposed by John Conyers, a congressman from Michigan, and Edward Brooke, a Massachusetts’ Senator, just days after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. The bill came up short, but was resubmitted year after year by Representatives Conyers and Shirley Chisholm. Some individual states had already taken action. Illinois made Dr. King’s birthday a state holiday in 1973 (sponsored by Harold Washington). Connecticut and Massachusetts created state holidays the following year, and New Jersey the year after.

Advocates for making Dr. King’s birthday into a federal holiday created a strategy to build public support that would pressure Congress. They worked with the unions, who added it to their holiday list (which is how it became a holiday in New Jersey). Different organizations submitted petitions to Congress, and in 1979 Coretta Scott King testified to Congress about the holiday. Then President Jimmy Carter called on Congress to pass the bill. When it finally came to a vote in 1979, it fell short by a handful of votes.

The King Center and others turned to the public. Stevie Wonder released the song, Happy Birthday**, to raise awareness of the holiday and the 1981 Civil Rights Conference, and it had the desired impact.

The King Center and other groups collected six million signatures for the petition, which Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder presented to Tip O’Neil, the Speaker of the House, in 1982.  Despite a filibuster lead by Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the bill creating a federal holiday for Dr. King’s birthday passed, and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in November, 1983, and went into affect in 1986.

It took several years for all of the states to comply and make Dr. King’s birthday a holiday. Some states tried to attach additional freight to the day, or avoid using Dr. King’s name (Civil Rights Day-New Hampshire, Human Rights Day-Utah) but eventually changed the names.  Some states added Confederate names to the day, but by 1990 most of that was over as well.  The NFL boycotted Arizona and moved the Superbowl from there in 1991 when voters did not pass a definitive MLK holiday, and voters instated it the following year.

Strange to think that it was so controversial, when it seems so clear.

We hope that you will march with us, and honor Dr. King through your actions and deeds.

*From a speech at Ebeneezer Church in Atlanta, February 4, 1968 entitled The Drum Major Instinct.
**Lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday
You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration
Cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you
And I’m sure you would agree
It couldn’t fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party on the day you came to be

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday

I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King

Why has there never been a holiday
Where peace is celebrated
All throughout the world

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

We know the key to unify all people
Is in the dream that you had so long ago
That lives in all of the hearts of people
That believe in unity
We’ll make the dream become a reality
I know we will
Because our hearts tell us so

(Originally posted 1/20/2019)

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