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.

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