Keller @ Large: How MLK Day Became Possible

BOSTON (CBS) – You know what day this is, and who it honors.

But did you know about the strange bedfellows that made Martin Luther King Jr. Day possible?

Listen to Jon’s commentary:

Four days after Dr. King was murdered in 1968, a bill was filed in Congress to make his birthday a national holiday.

But there was strong resistance.

It took 11 years for the bill to even come to the floor for a vote.

Some opponents argued that another paid day off for federal workers would cost too much, and that honoring a private citizen in this way would somehow violate tradition.

Others, even after the day was made a holiday, fought against observing it out of racism and distaste for Dr. King’s political views.

Some states chose to observe the holiday but called it some variation of “Civil Rights Day.”

New Hampshire was the final state to officially observe the day in honor of Dr. King, in 1999.

But the original movement for a King holiday began as a union contract demand.

When it was denied, workers all over the country began refusing to come to work on that day anyway.

The holiday was a focal point of a successful strike by New York City hospital workers in 1969, and through the 1970s, pressure built within the labor movement to make the day off official.

But as economic downturn put pressure on public budgets, and labor’s clout decreased, there was pushback.

The African-American mayor of Detroit tried to move King day to a Sunday to save money.

But just as Dr. King’s push for equal rights needed the aroused support of a morally-indignant public to become reality, so did the campaign for a King holiday.

In the late 1970s, the King family turned to large corporations like Coke and Miller Brewing to fund their crusade, and Stevie Wonder wrote a hit song about it.

In 1983, the King birthday holiday became law.

Imagine that – an idea up from the grassroots, brought to life by big business and popular support.

Even in death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a way of striking a unifying chord in us that we don’t see much of anymore.

You can listen to Keller At Large on WBZ News Radio every weekday at 7:55 a.m. and 12:25 p.m. You can also watch Jon on WBZ-TV News.

More from Jon Keller
  • Matt

    Until I get the day off it is just another Monday.

    • ginny2

      Yep, I’m with you Matt, it’s not a holiday where I work either. Just another Monday on the job.

      • Happy at Work

        Regular Monday for me too, but I don’t think this should be a holiday anyway, so I was MORE than happy to go to work! =)

  • newtsal

    Do you need to have the day off from work to honor a man who clearly deserves the gratitude of every person in this country? The fact that it took such an effort – one I remember well – to actually make it a holiday and that it still isn’t a complete holiday speaks volumes about who we are.

    • Matt

      Yes I do. How can I honor the guy if I am working. I am not very good at multi-tasking.

      • tsalnew


      • KathyD

        I guess you could do something that honors King’s message to build a beloved community. Donate to a cause for good, take a moment at lunchtime to read one of his speeches, think about how you can make the world a better place You don’t need a day off from work for that.

    • tsalnew

      I wasn’t clear. The first sentence was a question for Matt and ginny2.

  • Italo

    I think that if Mr. King were alive today, and he saw how some people of all races and backgrounds act, dress, and talk, including in the media, that he would really be concerned and feel that we still had a long way to go, and in fact maybe lost some of the progress he represented and fought for, which is sad.

    • tsalnew

      Italo – I think you are very right. I often wonder how those who fought to make this country great would feel if they were able to see the mess we have made of it.

      • Ellen

        Dr. King was a moral man, and today we live in such an immoral world that I think Dr. King would be very disappointed.

      • emom

        Italo, Amazing , I was talking to my child today and thought the same. If Mr king was alive he would see people they way they act and treat others, He would future say this is not what I meant about “I have a dream” Seeing the hostility of people one race against another, group’s and religions, nations against nations. I will be the first person to say I never read any of the material about him there was a lot over the years, However EQALITY is the message BUT its not just for one particular group, race or religion.. It was for all. Mr king have a dream but I do not see many believing it.. When so many can not even understand the reasons, but whats worse is how he was trying so hard to tell his people… The message for many if mute, But I feel he was looking for peace amongst people. I don’t see it. When so many want to blame others for the past , relive the past and simply hate others that had nothing to do with it,,,,,, I believe Mr King would be extremely embarrassed at what people have truly . Or should I say have not done.. I speak from how I have seen the world evolve and how people remain in the past and are eternally unwilling to change… Sad really since we are all human yet we simply can not see thru our own Beliefs and can not accept change. We all have our dislikes in our lives as well as in this world.. Christmas was a perfect example of how people are unwilling to accept the change But let each have it the way they choose… I will be the first to say I was extremely upset with How so many are appalled with my holiday.. But have to wonder If Mr King was alive today would he say to each their own Just do not cast down upon others for how they choose to celebrate… That is my dream people just going on with they ways and all look at it as that’s what they do, the problem people shoving it in our face, another thing I am sure Mr King would not like.. This is my opinion , as I said not reading the material much growing up But hear a lot,,,, How sad this country truly has become

  • Willow

    Why am I not surprised at some of the comments here. I wonder about the people who DO have the day off, if they even appreciate all that MLK stood for, or if they have any idea of what his message was. As a friend of mine stated, Doctor KIng brought a message of peace and equality and spoke out against hate, and it was hate that took his life. I think it’s sad that some think this message is lost if you don’t have the day off.

  • merimack

    I have always wanted this to be Civil Rights Day. I agree that Martin Luther King has a great man but, he was not the only one. I would rather remember ALL the men and women who helped end discrimination, than just one.

    There are only two holiday’s left with a person’s name in it. If Martin Luther King gets his own day than so should Washington and Lincoln. Or we should take Columbus and King’s names out of there day and call it Explorers and Civil Rights day.

  • paul

    Dr King was many things…MORAL was not one of them. An admitted adulterer and Boston University has attached a letter to his plagerized doctorate thesis.

    Dr King did many good things….but do not say that he was a moral man.

    • BostonIrish

      paul, he was human. He advocated equality and acceptance. That’s a pretty high statement of moral character in my opinion.

      • tsalnew

        BostonIrish – I tried to respond to Paul’s comment a few times but couldn’t come up with the words – you said it far nicer than I would have!

    • dowdy

      Dr King was a teacher of morality. He didn’t always practice what he taught. “Moral man” may even be an oxymoron because no man can be perfect.

    • Ellen

      So Dr. King was human. God forgives and by todays standards yes he was a moral man,

  • KathyD

    I wrote a thoughtful response but it disappeared. And I’m not writing it again.

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