It was over 50 years ago when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the march on Washington D.C. It was a moment that changed America, and the world. But, the line was almost excluded from the speech. One of King’s aides encouraged him not to use the line, stating it was cliché and that he had used it too many times already. After receiving several conflicting suggestions the night before the march, King put the final touches on the speech in solitude in his hotel room.
There was an array of speakers at the march that day, and he was sixteenth in line. The podium was crowded with microphones and speakers, and when he approached the platform he heard a voice from behind shout “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” It was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who had heard King refer to his dream on a previous occasion. She prompted him again. King then launched into his speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking over the National Mall. He delivered his message more like a sermon, laying his prepared notes to the side, letting spontaneity and emotion preside. The utopian-like speech was not just about what was going on in the world that day in time, it was about what was going on in the world every day. We have come a long way as a nation, but we still have a long way to go. In fact, there were decades of struggle and complications involved to get the observance Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday passed into federal law.
The complicated history of the holiday began just four days after the assassination of King in 1968, when the first legislation for a federal holiday held on January 15 observing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday was introduced to Congress. After no movement forward a few years later, a petition with 3 million signatures in support of the holiday was presented, but with no avail.
During this entire time, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, was working tirelessly to get his birthday recognized as a national holiday. Over a decade later, in 1980, Stevie Wonder became involved in Coretta’s efforts. He wrote and released the song “Happy Birthday”, which served as an unofficial slogan of the proposed holiday.
After another petition with over 6 million signatures was presented, the House passed the bill, followed by the Senate. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law in November 1983, and the first official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was observed in January of 1986 (on the third Monday of the month)—nearly two decades after the first legislation for the holiday was brought into play.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act. This act, devised by Coretta, expanded the mission of the holiday to include community service, interracial cooperation, and anti-violence initiatives for today’s youth. By 2000, every state in the US was participating in observance of the national holiday.
Here at Alabama Chanin, we strive to serve our community every day, and encouraged our staff to take time one afternoon this week to complete a service project of their choice in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his philosophy. Just imagine, if every employer in this community (and in your community) did the same, it would be an overwhelming day of service. In addition to our volunteer efforts, we also believe in (and participate in) programs like 12 For Life, which provides high school students with the chance to build work and life skills, while still attending classes—essentially building better lives through education and employment.
For ideas on ways you can serve, we recommend All For Good as a resource for volunteerism and community service in your area.
All photos from Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore.