Local strategists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference called yesterday for Americns to stay away from work and school on Jan. 15, the anniversary of the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as a protest against the failure of Congress to declare the day a national holiday.

Backed by Bernard Lee, an SCLC national board member and former King confidant, leader of SCLC's D.C. chapter said such a walkout would demonstrate what they said is widespread national support for the holiday. They also said it would give participants a chance to show appropriate respect for the slain civil rights leader.

"There must be a turnaround," Lee said at a press conference at the District Building, saying racism in America has surged up again. "There must be a show of good will."

The House in the last three weeks failed twice to approve legislation making King's birthday a legal holiday. Opponents say it would be expensive, costing $194 million in federal pay and up $3 billion if the private sector follows the government lead.

When the House passed a compromise measure putting the holiday on a Sunday, making it a payless holiday, sponsors quickly pulled the bill from the floor. The Rev. Goodwin Douglas, president of the D.C. chapter of SCLC, said at yesterday's press conference that the proposal for a one-day walk-out had been planned only by the local chapter. But he said he hoped to spread the idea to the other 60 to 70 SCLC chapters in the nation. "We're trying to light the fire," he said.

SCLC national president Joseph Lowery, reached in Atlanta, said the national office has not expressly considered or endorsed a walkout. "But I bless their (the D.C. chapter leaders) efforts," he said.

Douglas said school children and all employes in both government and private business -- except those in vital jobs such as police officers, firefighters and hospital workers -- will be asked to stay away from work or school on Jan. 15 (a Tuesday) and to participate in King-related memorial activities.

He said SCLC activists have been touch with federal government employe unions and will soon make a formal appeal to top union leadership for support.

Several local governments, including the District, Prince George's County and the state of Maryland, already close every Jan. 15 in observance of King's birthday.

SCLC national board member Lee noted yesterday that numerous foreign governments in Europe, Africa and the Middle East also observe Jan. 15 as a holiday, and it seems "diabolical" that the United States -- King's homeland -- does not.

As for the risk of employes being fired or otherwise penalized for staying away from work as a protest on Jan. 15, Lee said, "Dr. king should mean a little more to us than a job." o

Congress he said, should not object to making King's birth a paid holiday for federal employes since there are some "trivial holidays," they are already paid to take."

Lee delined to specify which holidays he thinks are trivial, saying family descendants of some American historical figures associated with legal holidays "would be embarrassed."

Federal employes now have nine paid holidays: New Year's Day, Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.