The Washington Post

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: A holiday that almost never was

This Monday we will be released from our workplaces out into an unseasonably warm but possibly snowy January to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., as we have for more than two decades.

A young Martin Luther King Jr. (Michael Ochs Archives)

The bill “languished in Congress” for eight years and faced an even “tougher fight in the Senate.”

From the Post archives in 1983:

“Bills to declare such a holiday have been introduced every year since King was assassinated in 1968, and, until yesterday, the House always shunted them aside. This time, overriding scattered and mainly Republican objections, it agreed overwhelmingly to set aside the third Monday every January in his honor. ... The bill goes to the Senate, where its future is cloudy.”

In a speech that year, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) declared that he and other members of Congress had gotten the holiday passed despite the efforts of “small men in the Congress” to stop it.

That voting record surfaced this Republican primary when a debate arose over Ron Paul’s controversial newsletters. Paul as well as GOP former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain voted against the holiday in 1983.

But it wasn’t just politicians who were against the holiday that year. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in 1983 found the American public was evenly divided on whether there should be Martin Luther King Jr. Day — 47 percent for, 47 against, and 5 percent had no opinion at all.

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