For Educators: Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday



The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) led the charge for the passage of a federal observation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, January 15, honoring his contribution to the United States. For 15 years the CBC advocated, debated, and sponsored legislation for the holiday and achieved passage of the bill in 1983. Using primary and secondary sources, students will learn about CBC’s determination with the support of grassroots organizations to establish a national holiday honoring the legacy of Dr. King in the civil rights movement for all Americans.

Grade Level: 5-12

Essential Questions:

What significant role do grassroots organizations play in effecting legislative policies?

Why is it important that legislative organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus exist in Congress?

Learning Objectives
The students will increase their knowledge of and appreciation of the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.
The students will respond to questions that require them to carefully study primary and secondary sources to understand the national impact of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday.
The students will understand and appreciate the legislative work of members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the continuous challenges they face in Congress.
National Learning Standards

National U.S. History Standards

Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

Standard 4: Domestic policies after World War II

Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and the extension of civil liberties.

Era 10: Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)

Standard 2: Economic, social, and cultural development in contemporary United States.

National Standards for Civics and Government
Content Standards

5. What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?
• How can citizens take part in civic life?

National Standards for Language Arts
NL.Eng.K-12.1: Reading for Perspective
Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build understanding of texts, themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world and to acquire new information.

National Standard for Music Education
Content Standards

6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music

9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture


Select an activity below to view full activity guidelines:

Documents, Resources and Worksheets Used in the Martin Luther King Holiday Bill

Activity 1: A National Hero: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Book for recommended student reading assignment: DK Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Online Video

Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Mini Bio
A & E Networks Digital, Biography Channel, January 2010 (5 minutes)


Activity 2: Debates in Congress: Fifteen-Year Struggle for a National Holiday to Honor Dr. King.

Activity 3: Citizens’ role in the legislative process


Activity 4: An Anthem for the Movement: Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder


Introductory Essay

The following article was published by, January 18, 2010.
Written by Frances Romero,8599,1872501,00.html


Martin Luther King Jr. Day

“This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday,” said Coretta Scott King after President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983. But in the complicated history of Martin Luther King, Jr Day, it has only recently been a holiday for all the people, all the time.

Fifteen years earlier, on April 4, 1968, Mrs. King had lost her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassin’s bullet. In the months after the death of the civil rights icon, Congressman John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced the first legislation seeking to make King’s birthday, Jan. 15, a federal holiday. The King Memorial Center in Atlanta was founded around the same time, and it sponsored the first annual observance of King’s birthday, in January 1969, almost a decade and a half before it became an official government-sanctioned holiday. Before then, individual states including Illinois, Massachusetts and Connecticut had passed their own bills celebrating the occasion.

The origins of the holiday are mired in racism, politics and conspiracy. Three years after Conyers introduced preliminary legislation in 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — which King headed from its inception until his death — presented Congress with a petition signed by more than 3 million people supporting a King holiday. The bill languished in Congress for eight years, unable to gain enough support until President Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia and the first Democratic President since Lyndon Johnson, vowed to support a King holiday.

Reinvigorated by the President’s support, King’s widow, Coretta, testified before joint hearings of Congress and organized a nationwide lobby to support the bill. Yet in November 1979, Conyers’ King-holiday bill was defeated in the House by just five votes. Coretta continued her fight for approval of a national holiday, testifying before Congress several more times and mobilizing governors, mayors and city council members across the nation to make the passage of a King-holiday bill part of their agenda. Singer Stevie Wonder became a prominent proponent and released the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980 — it became a rallying cry. He and Coretta went on to present a second petition to Congress, this one containing 6 million signatures of support. Their work finally paid off when the House passed the bill with a vote of 338 to 90.

The bill faced a somewhat tougher fight in the Senate, however. In an opposition campaign led primarily by Republican Senators John P. East and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, some attempted to emphasize King’s associations with communists… as reasons not to honor him with a federal holiday. As part of his efforts, on Oct. 3, 1983, Helms read a paper on the Senate floor, written by an aide to Senator East, called “Martin Luther King Jr.: Political Activities and Associations” and also provided a 300-page supplemental document to the members of the Senate detailing King’s communist connections. Some Senators expressed outrage over Helms’ actions, including New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who threw the document to the ground, stomped on it and deemed it a “packet of filth.”

Arguing that any person opposing a King holiday would automatically be dubbed a racist, Helms urged the Senate not to be bullied into elevating King to “the same level as the father of our country and above the many other Americans whose achievements approach that of Washington’s” by making him one of the few individuals honored by a federal holiday. The day before the bill passed the Senate, District Judge John Lewis Smith Jr. denied Helms’ request to unseal FBI surveillance tapes of King that were due to remain sealed until 2027. President Reagan signed the bill into law in November 1983 and the first official holiday was observed on the third Monday of January 1986.

At the time, only 27 states and Washington, D.C., honored the holiday. Most famously, all three Arizona House Republicans including current Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, voted against the bill in ’83. The state did not vote in favor of recognizing the holiday until 1992, not only rejecting pleas from Reagan and then Arizona governor Evan Mecham but also losing the NFL’s support when the league moved Super Bowl XXVII from Sun Devil Stadium, in Tempe, to California in protest. Arizona was not the only state openly contemptuous of federal law. In 2000, 17 years after the law’s official passage and the same year it pulled the Confederate flag down from its statehouse dome, South Carolina became the last state to sign a bill recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.

Activity 1: A National Hero: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Optional: Building Vocabulary

National Holidays
Grassroot Movements
Civil Rights
Nonviolent Resistance
Congressional Black Caucus
Congressional Committee
Legislative Branch


Above are listed vocabulary terms that the students will encounter throughout this lesson unit. To prepare them for the activities, have the students, through class discussion or online research, define their meaning.  Have the students write the term’s meaning on large sheets of paper to display in the classroom for reference.

Reading and Group Discussion

To familiarize students with Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dedication to the fight for an end to segregation and racism, begin the lesson with a reading assignment.  A recommended book is DK Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr. written by Amy Pastan and Primo Levi. This 128-page book is a photographic story filled with details and a new perspective based on the latest research. Through reading this biography, students will learn about inhumane segregation laws and why racism is wrong. Definition boxes teach students about nonviolent resistance or grassroots movements. On the last few pages, the author explains why Martin Luther King’s birthday has become an occasion where students learn about civil rights and why many dedicate the day to spiritual reflection or sponsor activities that promote change.

You may take one of two approaches for this reading assignment; depending on how much class time you have to devote to the reading.

•Divide the class into small groups and assign each group a chapter to read. Have each group prepare a (PowerPoint or poster) presentation about the chapter to share with the rest of the class. Or,
•Assign the book as a reading assignment for the whole class.


To focus the students during the reading the assignment, you may want to distribute to them Worksheet 1: Who is Dr. King? For the students to record their answers to the following questions:

•Who was Martin Luther King, Jr.?
•What tactic did he use to end segregation and raise awareness of the wrongs of racism?
•Why is it important to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and celebrate his achievements as a national holiday?
•How does the legacy of Dr. King impact your life?
•What would you like to do personally or for your family or your community that would honor Dr. King’s legacy and advance his desire for justice for all Americans?


When the students finish the assignment, engage them in a whole class discussion about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the importance of honoring him as a national holiday.

Video Documentary

Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Mini Bio
A & E Networks Digital, Biography Channel, January 2010 (5 minutes)

Prior to viewing the video, distribute to the students Worksheet 1: Who is Dr. King? To record information they learn about Dr. King. Following the video, engage the students in a whole class discussion about Martin Luther King, Jr. and why it was so important to members of the CBC and many American to honor with a national holiday.

Activity 2: Debates in Congress: Fifteen-Year Struggle for a National Holiday to Honor Dr. King.


Document Analysis, Group Discussions

Divide the students into small groups. Distribute to each group a copy of one of the Congressional Record text.

•Congressional Record—Senate: Introduction of Resolution in the Senate by Senator Edward Brooke, April 8, 1968
•Congressional Record—House: Remarks by Representative Ryan, January 21, 1970
•Congressional Record—Senate: Remarks by Senator Patrick Moynihan, (D-NY), October 19, 1983

Materials Needed:

•Computer with Internet access
•Easel pad

Explain to the students – what are the Congressional Records? (See definition below).

The Congressional Records are the official journals of the House and Senate daily actions. They have been published by the Government Printing Office since 1873. Each day the Congressional Records are published and submitted to the Library of Congress and are available for Congressional members the following day.  The Congressional Record is a verbatim account of the floor proceedings of the House and Senate. This includes debates, parliamentary actions and roll call votes. It also includes communication from the president and the executive branch, memorials, petitions, information about legislation and committee meetings and schedules.  These records are available to the public through the Library of Congress.

Tell the students to read the highlighted section on the document. Using Worksheet 2: Debates in Congress ask the students to record information from the readings by answering the following questions and share their responses with other students in their group:

Section I: The Debate

•Who is speaking?
•What is the date of the presentation?
•Where is the presentation taking place? In the House? In the Senate?

List three reasons why the Congressional member is seeking support from other Congressional members?

Section II: Personal Opinion

•If you were a member of Congress hearing this debate list three or more reasons why you would consider sponsoring or not sponsoring a bill to support a national holiday for Dr. King.


Following the small group discussions, engage the students in a whole class discussion about the issues raised in the debates. Encourage the students to share with the class their “Personal Opinion.”

You may want to use this sharing of personal opinion to engage students in a debate/discussion among themselves.

Optional Activity 1: Record the students’ responses on a large sheet of easel pad paper to post on the walls for future reference.

Optional Activity 2: Recreate with the students a mock session of Congress where each group presents the major points of their assigned Congressional Record document.

Video: C-Span Oral History Interview: Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)

During this oral history interview Rep. Conyers talks about his introduction of the first bill in 1968 for a King Holiday. He speaks about the challenges faced by the Congressional Black Caucus in achieving the goal to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. legacy as a national holiday.

C-Span Oral Histories: Representative John Conyers (D-MI)
(9:23sec. to 14:31sec.)

Tell the students to continue to use the worksheet to record any new information they learn from viewing the video. Following the video, ask the students what they learned and did it affect their earlier opinion from reading the documents?


As a concluding assignment for this activity, have the students write an essay about the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in fighting for the civil rights of all Americans and how their lives are impacted by his legacy. Have the students to also include in their essay what they would do to honor Dr. King on his birthday, January 15 and throughout the year (this could be personal acts of kindness or practicing compassion and tolerance towards their classmates, i.e. anti-bullying).

Optional Activity 3

Have your students participate in a school-wide assembly celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday by presenting their essays.

Activity 3: Citizens’ Role in the Legislative Process

The Congressional Black Caucus, along with a coalition of organizations, appealed for nationwide support of a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. Their earliest efforts included grassroots outreach. The CBC members spoke to their constituents about the legislative process surrounding the King Holiday Bill. They encouraged a movement within the communities to rally and show support for the bill. Marches and demonstrations were held across the country, and the CBC was a very visible presence at some of these demonstrations.

Before the King Holiday Bill passed in the U.S. Congress, many states enacted statewide holiday celebrations. These state-run celebrations were often used as a platform to call for a federal holiday. In January of 1983, the CBC, entertainer Stevie Wonder, and the coalition decided to call a strategy meeting instead of having a national march to press for the holiday. At the meeting, it was decided to prioritize legislative lobbying for a federal holiday. During the strategy session held in the Cannon House Office Building, the legislative strategy was outlined. The approach included direct appeals to all members of Congress from individuals, groups and organizations. The appeals would culminate in the 20th Anniversary Celebration and reenactment of King’s 1963 March on Washington. The successful strategy resulted in the approval of the bill in the House of Representatives, paving the way for the next step-Senate approval.

Excerpt from the Avoice Online exhibit, Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Bill.



Begin this activity by having the students read the introduction essay. As the students read the essay, have them answer the following questions using Worksheet 3: Citizens’ Role in the Legislative Process (pdf).

•How many years did it take before the King Holiday bill became law?
•At the signing of the bill, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, declared the King Holiday to be a holiday for whom?
•What was presented to Congress, with millions of signature, to show support for the bill?
•Why was certain individuals opposed the bill and how did Congress respond to their objections?
•By the time the bill became law, how many states declared King’s birthday a state holiday?

Documents and Primary Sources Analysis


Materials Needed:

•Poster boards
•Markers (assorted colors)
•Pencils or pens for each student

Using the National Archives analysis worksheets for photography and documents, have each group analyze their source by responding to the questions.


Allow the students 10 minutes to complete this activity.  Bring the students together for a whole group discussion about their document and the significance of it to the successful passing of the King Holiday Bill.

Online Research

Have the students conduct online research by exploring the Avoice website at to learn more about their document source and the information or individuals that are featured.

Visual Presentation

When the students complete their research, have them to create a collage to tell the story of their document. For example, where is Elizabeth, N.J. (a map); who are the “chosen freeholders of N.J; where is Vietnam and why were the soldiers celebrating Dr. King’s birthday there, etc.

Writing for a real cause

Using the Chosen Freeholders of NJ as a model, have the class prepare a resolution for a school-based or community concern and present as a signed petition to the school principal or town  official.  This is an activity that can take place over a period of time because it may require research.

Online Research: Create a map of state enacted King Holiday celebrations

Before the King Holiday bill passed in the U.S. Congress, many states enacted statewide holiday celebrations. These state-run celebrations were often used as a platform to pursue a federal holiday. However, not all states were willing to declare a statewide holiday or readily accepted the federal holiday passed by Congress.

Have the students create a map of the United States showing when each state declared a statewide holiday or recognized the federal law for a King Holiday.  The students can research Avoice online or state government web sites for information. Ask the students to note which states declared statewide celebrations before 1983 and states that accepted the federal holiday several years after the signing of the bill into law. Have the students to explain why certain states stalled accepting the federal holiday.

Display the map in the classroom for further discussions about celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King.

Activity 4: An Anthem for the Movement: Happy Birthday by Stevie Wonder

Brief Introduction: Stevie Wonder

Singer Stevie Wonder joined forces with Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, and John Conyers, U.S. House of Representatives (D-MI) to increase grassroots support.  Mr. Wonder attended the January 15, 1981 rally at the Washington Monument to support the King Holiday movement.   At the rally, Stevie Wonder gave a speech advocating for a Dr. King national holiday and introduced a birthday song for him that increased national awareness. 100,000 people joined Stevie Wonder as well as celebrities like Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Jesse Jackson, and Gil Scott-Heron at the rally. The day was cold and snowy.  Mr. Wonder thanked the crowd for attending. He said, “For even though it is freezing cold and snowing…you have found the time, the energy, the necessary resources, the heart and the courage to step forward as Americans and as human beings on this day to seek a more full recognition for a great man and the great principles he has lived, fought, and died for.”   With financial support from Stevie Wonder, a lobbying office was opened in Washington, D.C. and eventually this effort secured millions of signatures on petitions to Congress in support of a national holiday to honor Dr. King’s contributions.

Documents Needed:

Worksheet 4: Stevie Wonder’s Speech
Worksheet 5: Lyrics to the Song – Happy Birthday

Materials Needed:

•Computer with Internet access



Share with your students a copy of Stevie Wonder’s speech advocating a national Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Mr. Wonder delivered the speech January 15, 1981 at a march in Washington, D.C.  Allow the students 10 minutes to read the speech

Document Analysis and Group Discussion

Using Worksheet 4: Stevie Wonder’s Speech, have the students gather information from this document by answering the following questions:

•Why was it important to gather in Washington, D.C.?
•What were the messages or principles that Dr. King spoke about and that are still vital today?
•What did Mr. Wonder say to those who believed that national holidays are to only honor presidents and great events?
•List 5 reasons why Mr. Wonder advocated for a national holiday for Dr. King.
•What did Mr. Wonder encourage the people who attended the rally to do?


Have the students share what they learned about Mr. Wonder’s participation in the movement and how critical it was to the success of gaining a national holiday honoring Dr. King’s life and legacy.

Reading and Analyzing Song Lyrics

Following the class discussion about Mr. Wonder’s speech, share with the students a copy of the lyrics to his song, “Happy Birthday.” Ask the students:

•Do they know what an anthem is and its purpose?
•How many of them have heard the song before seeing Stevie Wonder’s performance of it on the video?
•How many of them knew that the song became the anthem for the movement?

Using Worksheet 5: Lyrics to the Song – Happy Birthday, have the students read the lyrics to the song and compare it to Mr. Wonder’s speech.

•How does the song reflect what he spoke about in his speech?
•Why do you think it quickly became an anthem for the movement?
•Do you think this song is as important today as it was in 1981?
•What songs today celebrate and honor African American heritage?
•If you were to write a song today to honor Dr. King what would you say?

Following the analysis of the lyrics, play the song for the students using the following links:



Internet Research for Music Composition/Spoken Word

Engage the students in additional research of the Avoice online exhibit, Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Bill.  Tell the students to consider how to use the information they discover on the site to write a song or poem honoring Dr. King. You may divide the students into small groups for this activity.

Optional Activity: Collaboration with the English and Music Departments of your school.

You may consider collaborating with the English and music department teachers in implementing this writing and music composing activity. As a conclusion to this activity encourage the students to present their poetry or song to the rest of the school in a special program to honor the legacy of Dr. King.

Extended Activity

Consider screening this recommended documentary:  Martin Luther King: The Making of a Holiday.


Anthem: An uplifting song that is identified with a particular movement, country or a group of people, or point of view.

Civil Rights: The personal rights of the individual citizen, in most countries upheld by law as in the United States. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 established legal equality in social, economic, and political rights for all Americans.

Congressional Black Caucus: Founded in 1972, this organization represents the black members of the United States Congress. The goal of the Caucus is to influence legislative action that is pertinent to African-Americans and achieve greater equity for persons of African descent in design and content of domestic and international programs and services.

Congressional Committees: A legislative sub-organization in the United States Congress that handles a specific duty such as the Appropriation Committee that determines federal budgets and spending or the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Committee membership enables members to participate in identifying issues for legislative review, gather and evaluate information, and make recommendations for a course of action. The Committee for Postal Service and Civil Service reintroduced the Dr. King Holiday bill in 1983 seeking an approval vote; it passed and became law.

Debate: A formal discussion of a motion before a deliberative body like the United States House of Representatives or the United States Senate.

Grassroot Movement: Ordinary or common people who do not necessarily hold any political office, organizing for a cause to influence or bring about lasting changes that effect political policies or lawmaking.

Legislative Branch: The branch of government that has the power of legislating or making laws.

National Holiday: A holiday that is legally established by a government to honor a person or event that has a national significant. In the United States we have ten national holidays that honor individuals like Dr. King or American Workers on Labor Day.

Nonviolent Resistance: Abstaining from physical force to resist or protest injustice and achieve goals of equality and legal protection for all.

Petitions: A formal written request made to an official person or organized body like the United States Congress

Racism: A belief, policy, or system of government that fosters discrimination or intolerance of another race.

Segregation: The practice of separate facilities and services within the same society for the use of a minority group. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black children in southern states attended separate schools from whites that had

Unit Resources

Avoice Exhibit

Visit the Avoice exhibit about the Martin Luther King Holiday Bill


Martin Luther King Holiday Bill Timeline


Carson, Clayborne, editor. Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warner Books, New York, New York, 1998.

Pastan, Amy and Primo Levi. DK Biography: Martin Luther King, Jr. Dooling-Kiperling Publisher, London, UK. 2005.

Web Resources

Avoice: African-American Voices in Congress


C-Span Oral Histories: Representative John Conyers (D-MI)
(9:23sec. to 14:31sec.)

During this oral history interview Rep. Conyers talks about his introduction of the first bill in 1968 for a King Holiday. He speaks about the challenges faced by the Congressional Black Caucus in achieving the goal to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. legacy as a national holiday.

Thank you for visiting the Avoice online project. This website is being continuously updated with new exhibits, multimedia, and much more.