Within the halls of Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus championed the movement to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) led this charge, co-sponsoring bills and amendments for consideration every year from 1968 to 1983. Throughout those 15 years, the CBC worked to gain support among colleagues outside the Caucus and in the Senate. In 1979, a Conyers-sponsored bill was narrowly defeated by five votes.
In 1983, CBC member Rep. Katie B. Hall (D-IN) re-introduced the King Holiday legislation, H.R. 3706. In the House of Representatives and in the Senate, the bill was hotly contested. The major issues raised in the House was that the passage of the bill would elevate Dr. King to the status of the founding father, George Washington and that it would be too costly to grant federal workers an additional holiday.
The holiday bill passed the House on a vote of 338-90 in August 1983. Despite bi-partisan support and support from the Senate leadership, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) led a bitter opposition to the bill in the Senate. Calling Dr. King a Communist, Helms circulated negative material in an effort to defeat the bill. Nevertheless, the Senate approved the bill by a vote of 78-22 in October 1983.
The CBC was overjoyed in November 1983 to witness President Ronald Reagan signing Public Law 98-144, which designated the third Monday in January as a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following excerpt was taken from a report prepared by Rep. Katie B. Hall from the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service:
“Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to this great country a new understanding of equality and justice for all… This legislation will act as a national commitment to Dr. King’s vision of an ideal America…”
“The committee concurs that a national commitment to the work and ideals of Dr. King must surface in the form of a national holiday whereby every American will be reminded of his great struggles and contributions to mankind.”