A national holiday rarely intersects with the Christian calendar. But Martin Luther King is so precious to us that we’re inlcuding his “birthday” as part of our observances.
From the Bible
Read Deuteronomy 15:1-15
“However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you.” — Deuteronomy 15:4
About the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday
In 1983, Ronald Reagan signed into law the legislation that made the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15) a national holiday. Reagan did not support the legislation. He opposed the King holiday because he thought King did not deserve to be so honored. Plenty of people at the time shared that opinion, and plenty of people still do.
There is, after all, exactly one other American so honored, and that person is George Washington — not Lincoln, not Jefferson. (The third Monday in February, the day we call “Presidents Day,” is officially, as it has always been, Washington’s Birthday). Giving Martin Luther King Jr., a man who never held public office, an honor that had been reserved exclusively for the father of the country was a very loud statement, one that our nation’s most conservative president probably would have preferred not to make.
Reagan objected because he believed that another federal holiday would just create more government bloat. The King holiday would become the tenth national holiday that came with a paid day off for all federal workers, the cost of which the Congressional Budget Office estimated at $18 million per holiday in 1983 dollars. To those who objected to the cost of the new holiday, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, whose conservative bona fides were no less than Reagan’s, said: “I suggest they hurry back to their pocket calculators and estimate the cost of 300 years of slavery, followed by a century or more of economic, political and social exclusion and discrimination.”
Luckily for the president, the legislation was passed with veto-proof majorities, making his threatened veto a non-issue. So on Nov. 2, 1983, in a Rose Garden ceremony, Ronald Reagan signed the legislation into law with Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, by his side. This is often listed among his accomplishments.
Reagan’s point was not without logic. The original impetus for the holiday came from labor unions with large African-American memberships that sought a paid day off on MLK’s birthday in contract negotiations. And though legislation creating the holiday was a landmark in American racial relations, all the creation of a federal holiday practically does is give a paid day off to federal government workers. It does not give the day a spirit or a meaning.
Many of the people who had worked diligently for years collecting signatures and petitioning legislators to create the King holiday must have experienced a “What now?” moment when they achieved their goal. They had insisted on having an “official” holiday. They were not interested in Reagan’s counter-suggestion that the King birthday be observed like Lincoln’s, which is to say, without closing government offices. But if the King holiday were to keep true to the spirit of the man whose life inspired it, then it had to become more than just another three-day weekend.
In 1994, Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania and Congressman John Lewis of Georgia authored the King Holiday and Service Act, with the intention of transforming the King holiday from a vacation day into a day of civic participation and volunteerism; from what had been a “day off” to a “day on.” President Bill Clinton signed the legislation into law on Aug. 23, 1994.
The Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service has often been cited as the nation’s largest King Day event: (website and Facebook). There is no doubt Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King left his mark on Philadelphia. His journeys to this city are noted and marked and his wife Coretta authorized the only Chapter of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Nonviolence in Philadelphia.
Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing protesters at Girard College on August 3, 1965.
It is understandable that his holiday, Jan. 21, 2013, will be centered at an institution he once criticized for its racist legacy: Girard College. He staged a rally there in 1965. It is the kickoff place for 1,500 community-service projects scheduled throughout the city for the celebration marking his birthday, now a national holiday. This year is the fourth in which Girard College has acted as host to the daylong celebration.
Philadelphians and the City administration have worked to make MLK Day truly a day of service, the kind of day envisioned by Dr. King. The Day of Service concept has taken hold around the country, due to the efforts of Philadelphian Todd Bernstein, who over the past eighteen years has kept the day of service alive and growing. His efforts have made Philadelphia, the leading celebrator of this day of service. He founded Global Citizen to spearhead the annual event. “What started 18 years ago as a local project has become a growing nationwide movement of celebrating Dr. King’s legacy by uniting people of all backgrounds and ages and turning pressing community concerns into ongoing citizen action.”
The Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service has drawn some 785,000 volunteers over 17 years. Each year, it has been the largest King Day event in the nation. In 2012, more than 85,000 people, including VP Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden, volunteered in some 1,300 projects. In 2013 over 100,000 participated.