Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States doesn’t just celebrate the civil rights pioneer’s triumphs over discrimination. It also marks a triumph of political will and idealism over cold economics.
When the celebration of King’s Jan. 15 birthday was proposed as a national holiday in the late 1970s, debate in Washington D.C. turned less on whether King and his courageous advocacy warranted such recognition, and more on whether the American economy could afford another federal holiday.
According to newspaper accounts, a three‐hour debate on the U.S. House floor in Dec. 1979 focused largely on the estimated $212 million it would cost in lost productivity and overtime to give Americans another day off. Many opposed to the holiday insisted their stance had nothing to do with their opinion of the anti-racism causes King espoused and his Vietnam-era views on politics and labor rights, but with simple economics.
The Congressional Black Caucus, the most persistent advocates for the holiday, ultimately pulled the 1979 bill after a House floor amendment pushed the formal recognition of King’s birthday to a Sunday, meaning no paid time off or overtime for federal workers. A Sunday observance instead of a paid holiday, advocates argued, would signal a lesser importance.
Many similar attempts to federally recognize King’s birthday met similar fates for similar reasons, dating all the way back to 1968, the year King was assassinated. And right up until President Ronald Regan signed Martin Luther King Jr. day into law in 1983, opponents decried the idea due in part to the $5 billion price tag it would carry for labour hours paid but not worked. Prior FBI surveillance of King was used to argue against the holiday as well.
In the end, though, what won the day was a recognition that the struggle for equality and dignity that King lived and died for carried more weight than the economic considerations of the day.
Following the vote to authorize the holiday, observed for the first time in 1986 and on every third Monday of January since, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, said at a news conference: ”For those of us who believe in the dream, it is a great day for America and the world.”
Since 1986, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become a national day of service in the United States, with volunteer opportunities across the country.
Daylong “MLK Day Bootcamp” events are held around the country, in which volunteers teach teenagers and young adults critical workforce skills, and volunteer food drives and community festivals are held across the country. Community breakfasts reflect on King’s most powerful speeches and how individuals can embody his ideals in every day action. In the days leading up to the holiday, schoolchildren in many states are taught how King’s ideas represent an evolution of the principles of U.S. democracy embedded in its founding documents, such as liberty, the common good, justice, and equality.
And as the United States approaches 40 years since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was ratified, there’s nary a mention of how much the holiday costs, only of how much value it adds.