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Why We Honor Him: Facts, History About Martin Luther King Jr. Day

How much do you know about the civil rights leader?

On Jan. 15, 1929, Martin Luther King Jr. was born.

He was a man who would eventually become the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a renowned leader in the advancement of civil rights around the world.

Every third Monday in January, we observe the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., and this year, it falls on Jan. 16, we celebrate the birth of King as a day to promote equality among all people, regardless of background or ethnicity.

Among his best-known accomplishments, King was a chief motivator in the movement to end racial segregation in the United States. He was the youngest man to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and his beliefs in nonviolent activism reflected the work of Mahatma Gandhi.

Here’s a few lesser-known facts:

1 of 3: King is one of three people to have a federal holiday in his honor, according to USA.gov. The other two individuals with the recognition are George Washington and Christopher Columbus. Although the holiday celebrates King’s birthday, which is Jan. 15, MLK Day is considered a floating holiday, and is always observed on the third Monday of January.

Passing the Time: The original bill to make King’s birthday a federal holiday was introduced to Congress days after his death, but it didn’t pass until 1983. At the time, those in office claimed the main argument against it was that King never held public office, and that making a federal holiday based on a private citizen would break tradition.

Ronald Regan: In 1983, Ronald Reagan signed the bill making MLK Day a federal holiday, although many say it was under immense pressure. In 1986 the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed. According to Time, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), voted against the bill in '83. 

17 Minutes: King delivered his most famous address, the “I Have A Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. According to National Public Radio, King spoke for 17 minutes to more than 200,000 supporters, calling for an end to racial discrimination.

15 Years and 6 Million Signatures: The time and effort it took for King's birthday to be recognized as holiday. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. The efforts to make King’s birthday a holiday began almost immediately, but it was another 15 years and six million petition signatures later before the bill was passed, according to Fact Monster.

Repetition: Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, and Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Democrat of New York, resubmitted King holiday legislation each subsequent legislative session until it passed, according to Fact Monster.

Happy Birthday Song: Music legend Stevie Wonder helped with the MLK Day legislation by releasing “Happy Birthday.” It was an ode to King, according to Wikipedia, and essentially a public shaming of those resistant to approving a MLK Day.

Slow on Change: Getting all 50 sates on board took until 2000. New Hampshire was the last state to adopt MLK Day as a paid state holiday in 1999, according to Fact Monster. Several states, including Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts, celebrated King before the federal holiday was created, only 27 along with the District of Columbia recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day after the federal law.

MLK Day or Confederate Day? South Carolina was the last state holdout, finally recognizing King Day in 2000 as a paid holiday for all state employees. According to Fact Monster, until then, employees could choose between celebrating it or one of three Confederate-related holidays.

1991 Mistake: Arizona paid for the state’s holdout on the holiday. Super Bowl XXVII was scheduled to take place at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ, according to the Tuscon Sentinel. When voters in 1990 rejected creating a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the National Football League moved the game to Pasadena, CA.

Day of Service: In 1994, Congress designated MLK Day as a national day of service. Martin Luther King Jr. Day morphed into a day for volunteerism—“day on, not a day off,”—to honor King’s legacy.

Different Day?: States like Arizona and New Hampshire combine MLK Day with Civil Rights Day, which is not recognized as a federal holiday. Others simultaneously observe Human Rights Day on King’s birthday, with the same belief -- equality for all. Some states, like Alabama and Arkansas, observe both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday on the third Monday in January.

The Speech: King delivered his most famous address, the “I Have A Dream” speech, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. Considered to be one of the defining moments of the American Civil Rights Movement, King spoke for 17 minutes to more than 200,000 supporters, calling for an end to racial discrimination.

His Death: King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. James Earl Ray, the accused murderer, was arrested in London two months later. The efforts to make King’s birthday a holiday began almost immediately, but it was another 15 years -- and 6 million petition signatures -- before the bill was finally passed.

Author’s note: Information provided by timeanddate.com and factmonster.com.

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