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“This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday,” said Coretta Scott King after President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983. But in the complicated history of Martin Luther King, Jr Day, it has only recently been a holiday for all the people, all the time.

Fifteen years earlier, on April 4, 1968, Mrs. King had lost her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassin’s bullet. In the months after the death of the civil rights icon, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation seeking to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday. The King Memorial Center in Atlanta was founded around the same time, and it sponsored the first annual observance of King’s birthday, in January 1969, almost a decade and a half before it became an official government-sanctioned holiday. Before then, individual states including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut had passed their own bills celebrating the occasion.

The origins of the holiday are mired in racism, politics and conspiracy. Three years after Conyers introduced preliminary legislation in 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — which King headed from its inception until his death — presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting a King holiday. The bill languished in Congress for eight years, unable to gain enough support until President Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia and the first Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson, vowed to support a King holiday.

Reinvigorated by the President’s support, King’s widow, Coretta, testified before joint hearings of Congress and organized a nationwide lobby to support the bill. Yet in November 1979, Conyers’ King-holiday bill was defeated in the House by just five votes. Coretta continued her fight for approval of a national holiday, testifying before Congress several more times and mobilizing governors, mayors and city council members across the nation to make the passage of a King-holiday bill part of their agenda. Singer Stevie Wonder became a prominent proponent and released the song “Happy Birthday”in 1980 — it became a rallying cry. He and Coretta went on to present a second petition to Congress, this one containing 6 million signatures of support. Their work finally paid off when the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 to 90.

Here’s Stevie Wonder performing ‘Happy Birthday’, the song that was very instrumental in getting the message out about making Dr. King’s birthday the national holiday it is now.

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Source: Time Magazine