Establishing the third Monday in January of each year as a national legal holiday to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is an appropriate extension of the Monday holiday legislation.

Honoring King would fulfill many purposes. It would commemorate a new era in our nation's history, one in which we strive to eradicate a policy of discrimination based on race. Also, in according special recognition to King, other outstanding black Americans would share the honor, people like Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune and many others.

As the principal sponsor of the Monday holiday legislation in 1968, which established a national legal holiday on the third Monday in February to honor George Washington's birth, the last Monday in May as Memorial Day and the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, I think it is important to recall the underlying wisdom of establishing Monday holidays: the leaders of American business concluded that the savings experienced by eliminating midweek plant closings would more than compensate for the additional paid holidays falling on Monday. In other words, the extensive absenteeism, shut-downs and fire-up expenses incurred when holidays fall on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday added up to a greater economic loss than would an additional Monday holiday.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce got behind the Monday holiday bill in 1967 and 1968, and this, combined with strong Hispanic and Italian-American sentiments in the House and Senate, brought us four Monday holidays (reduced to three with the revival of Armistice Day--Nov. 11--as Veterans' Day).

When I offered the amendment in December 1979 to establish the third Monday in January as a new national legal holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the principal House sponsors, Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Bob Garcia of New York and Cardiss Collins of Illinois, supported my amendment. It was adopted by almost 3 to 1 (291 to 106). Later and most unfortunately, in a move reminiscent of a largely discarded attitude of the "old South," a substitute amendment was slipped through designating the "third Sunday" in January as Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This, understandably, killed the bill in the 96th Congress.

As I emphasized in the original Monday holiday bill debate in 1967 and 1968, a three-day weekend observance offers great opportunities to visit the sites that we associate with the events or persons we commemorate. The great stretch of the Washington Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial may become the scene where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s most ardent admirers gather annually as they recall his reverent and immortal words, "I have a dream . . ."

The wisdom of a national legal holiday honoring King is acknowledged. President Reagan has given indications that he would sign such a bill. It would be difficult for him not to sign such a measure if it comes to his desk after receiving overwhelming support in the House and Senate.

The economic costs will be reduced by as much as 25 percent by establishing such a new national legal holiday on the third Monday in January. The man and all that he stood for and dreamed of may be commemorated annually on such a convenient day--at minimum cost and maximum benefit to all Americans.