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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: How a Holiday is Created

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Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. were longtime collaborators in the civil rights movement. Rustin and the A. Philip Randolph Institute started a campaign to create a federal holiday honoring King and his work shortly after his death in 1968. In honor of this holiday, read the press release in which Bayard Rustin explains why the King holiday is important (below).

It took fifteen years after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination for Congress to pass a resolution creating a federal holiday in his honor. Learn more about the debate in Congress behind the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in this special interactive feature. (This feature will pop open a new window.)


For release: Immediately
December 31, 1969


January 15th will be the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are millions of black and white Americans who will observe Dr. King's birthday with the solemnity that is appropriate for such an important occasion. Many adults will not work, students will not attend classes, and children will stay home from school. Instead of engaging in their normal activities, they will attend meetings at which speakers will discuss the meaning of Dr. King's life and the heritage he left us. As a result of their day's observance, these people should be wiser and more dedicated to building a just society.

It is not enough, however, that Dr. King's birthday be celebrated on such an informal basis. For a number of reasons it is essential that his birthday be made a national holiday and that it be observed by all Americans.

The most obvious reason for creating this holiday is to pay honor to Dr. King and to the principles for which he lived and died. As the leader of what has come to be called The Second American Revolution, Dr. King achieved a stature comparable to that of our Founding Fathers. More importantly, he remade the First American Revolution it its own best image. The principles of equality and liberty which were the stated goals of that revolution were marred by the inclusion of a clause in the Constitution that designated each Negro slave as three-fifths of a human being. Thus the first revolution was incomplete, and it was almost two centuries before a movement arose demanding the realization of the American ideals. Dr. King led that movement and articulated its most profound desires. For this reason alone he deserves to be honored by the entire nation.

Yet there are other reasons. Our country is now experiencing its most serious crisis since the Civil War. At that time the root cause of the crisis involved the position of the Negro in American society, and the same is true today. Our nation is being torn apart over the issue of whether or not there shall be equality for black people. The greatness of Dr. King was not so much that he led the struggle for equality, but that he lead it in such a way that America could survive the accompanying social conflict, and in fact become a greater nation in the process. He preached equality for black people yet his message also pointed a way of salvation for white people. He understood that only by means of nonviolent protest could black people achieve their demands while at the same time preserving the society into which they were demanding entrance. He understood that integration did not mean a loss of identity for black people, but rather the recognition of their humanity by white people. He also believed that black people must recognize the humanity of whites, and his own life was a beautiful testament to the power of this belief.

If Dr. King's faith in the possibility of human reconciliation helped Americans to discover a way out of their racial dilemma, it also encouraged people all over the world to increase their efforts to end war, poverty, and human oppression. The Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 1964, was a tribute to the international significance of the nonviolent struggle he waged here at home.

Finally, Dr. King's birthday should be made a national holiday because this would be a symbolic recognition by all Americans of the contribution of black people to American society. It would also signify to Negroes that the government and the people of the United States believe in what Dr. King stood for. At a time of severe racial division, when a growing number of black people no longer believe that they will ever find real freedom in America, the creation of a national holiday for Dr. King's birthday would be taken by Negroes to mean that equality is still possible in America, that Martin Luther King's dream can still become a reality. If Negroes lose this faith, it will not be their tragedy alone. It will be America's tragedy.