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Five Things You Need to Know About MLK Day

Do you know how Stevie Wonder helped create Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Learn that and other facts about MLK Day.

1. This year marks the 26th anniversary of the federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill (somewhat grudgingly, some historians say) into law in 1983 creating the holiday, but it wasn’t first celebrated until 1986.

2. Creating Martin Luther King Jr. Day wasn’t a quick process. A bill shortly after King’s death didn’t get anywhere. An attempt in the late 1970s failed, failing short of approval in the House of Representatives by just a five votes. But supporters didn’t give up, instead launching a public campaign calling for the creation of MLK Day.

Musician Stevie Wonder got in on the campaign, releasing “Happy Birthday.” This ’80s fabulous, synthesizer-heavy song isn’t the traditional “Happy Birthday,” but an ode to King and essentially a public shaming of anyone against MLK Day. The lyrics include:

You know it doesn't make much sense, there ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense, at a day in your celebration
’Cause we all know in our minds, that there ought to be a time
That we can set aside, to show just how much we love you
And I'm sure you will agree, it couldn't fit more perfectly
Than to have a world party on the day you came to be

The movement galvanized Americans, some 6 million of who signed a petition in support of creating MLK Day. And remember, this was well before the Internet made huge petitions a simple process.

3. Getting all 50 dates on board took until 2000. Although several states, including Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts, celebrated King before the federal holiday was created, only 27 and the District of Columbia recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day after the federal law.

Arizona paid for the state’s holdout on the holiday. Super Bowl XXVII was scheduled to take place at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, AZ. But when voters in 1990 rejected creating a Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, the National Football League moved the game to Pasadena, CA.

South Carolina was the last state holdout, finally recognizing King Day in 2000.

4. MLK Day always takes place the third Monday in January and was set to take place near King’s Jan. 15 birthday. This year missed the civil right leader’s birthday by a day. MLK has taken place on King’s actual birthday four years since its inception: 2007, 2001, 1996 and 1990. The next MLK Day on King’s Jan. 15 birthday will be in 2018.

5. Martin Luther King Jr. Day morphed into a day for volunteerism—“day on, not a day off,” as the saying goes—to honor King’s legacy. Congress pushed for this change in 1994 by designating MLK Day as a national day of service. Volunteer projects take place in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

 

Bonus fact! The memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. opened last year in Washington, D.C., and was immediately embroiled in controversy. Some people decry the statue’s so-called “aggressive” pose, but it’s a quote etched into the granite causing the most consternation.

One side of the statue reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness” (without the quotation marks.) The only problem? King never said that.

His statement actually began with “If you want to say I was a drum major, say I was…” and was included in a sermon that criticized self-promotion in the civil rights movement. Critics have said the quote makes King sound egotistical, in addition to just being historically inaccurate. Poet Maya Angelou was blunter, saying the error makes King sound like an “arrogant twit.”

After several months of controversy, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently ordered the quote corrected.

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