First Observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day 

US #1771 was issued two days before King’s 50th birthday.  Click image to order. 

On January 20, 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed as a federal holiday after a decades-long battle.

Calls for a holiday honoring King began just four days after his sudden death in 1968 at the age of just 39 years old.  US Representative John Conyers and US Senator Edward Brooke submitted a bill calling on Congress to declare his birthday a national holiday.

US #3188a honors Kings’ “I Have a Dream” speech.  Click image to order. 

Conyers’ bill received little support, but in the coming years, he continued to introduce it again and again.  Each time he would get a few more co-sponsors to sign on, gaining much-needed support.  He also enlisted the aid of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

Despite the growing support for the bill, some strongly opposed it.  One argument was that it would be too expensive to grant a paid holiday for federal workers.  Others also argued that it would break with tradition to honor a private citizen, as other memorial holidays honored people that had held public office.

US #3188a – Mystic First Day Cover.  Click image to order. 

The early 80s brought a tide positive support for the bill.  By that time, the CBC collected six million signatures from Americans that supported the federal holiday honoring King.  And in 1980, Stevie Wonder wrote the song, “Happy Birthday” to bring greater attention to the campaign for a King holiday.  Wonder also held a Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981 to further the cause.

US #1771 – Silk Cachet First Day Cover.  Click image to order. 

Then in 1983, a group of Civil Rights Movement veterans assembled in Washington, DC to honor the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington and the 15th anniversary of King’s death.  That event helped the campaign gain major traction. That year the legislation made it to the Senate floor, where it was filibustered by Jesse Helms.  Helms tried to introduce information from the FBI they had used to try to identify King as a communist.  This led to major tension in the Senate, during which Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the files a “packet of filth” and threw them on the floor in disgust.

Montserrat #1214-15 were issued for King’s 80th birthday.  Click image to order. 

After that, the bill easily passed and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983.  The first official federal celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was held on January 20, 1986.  The events that year included a concert headlined by Stevie Wonder.

Liberia #C180 honors King’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Click image to order. 

While MLK Day was declared a federal holiday, the states still had the right to choose to observe at the state level.  Many southern states combined the holiday with those honoring Robert E. Lee, whose birthday was January 19.  It wasn’t until 2000 that every state observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Thank you Mystic. I was unaware of the drama regarding this bill in the Senate with Helms and Moynihan in the thick of it. And I did not know Stevie Wonder played a major role. Again, thank you for the history lesson.

  2. I too did not know of the Helms and Moynihan stand on the senate floor. I know some southern states called it Lee, Jackson, King Day. Thanks as always for such a good write up,

  3. “Sudden Death” seems to be a bit of an understatement about how MLK was assassinated in 1968. To me a “sudden death” might be a heart attack or an auto accident. Why so timid in calling it what it was?

    1. Yes !!! An Assassination is a sudden death but you do an injustice to the passion and anger expressed in America during the 1960’s. It was such a loss.

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