How MLK Day became a national holiday

It took 15 years and Stevie Wonder to finally make it happen

On the third Monday of each January, Americans honor one of the most prominent civil rights leader in world history, Martin Luther King Jr.

While King’s accomplishments are well-known — Nobel Peace Prize, Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act of 1964, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — the significance of the King holiday has been drowned out in recent years, from department store blowout sales to white celebrities co-opting the celebration. At the same time, the number of private companies that give employees the holiday off has nearly tripled since its inception in 1986.

After 15 years of work by activists, on Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan officially made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday, with its first observance taking place in 1986.

The political journey to that historic holiday was not an easy one. In the words of Motown legend Stevie Wonder, who wrote a song commemorating the effort in 1981, “Happy Birthday,” the first lyrics read:

You know it doesn’t make much sense / There ought to be a law against, Anyone who takes offense / At a day in your celebration

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