Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday?

Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday in the United States, which honors King as the chief spokesperson for nonviolent activism in the Civil Rights Movement.

Holiday origins

The campaign for a federal holiday in King’s honor began soon after his assassination in 1968, largely promoted by labor unions. In 1979, a bill to make King’s birthday failed to receive the number of votes needed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Opponents argued that a paid holiday for federal employees would be too expensive, and that holiday’s shouldn’t honor private citizens.

Momentum for the holiday gained support from the corporate community and the general public—greatly strengthened by the release of Stevie Wonder’s single “Happy Birthday” in 1980 and his hosting of the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981—culminating in a petition to pass the law that received 6 million signatures. Despite originally opposing it due to cost concerns, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to establish the holiday in 1983. It eventually passed Congress, and the first observance occurred on January 20, 1986.

Observance outside the United States

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated with equal importance in the Japanese city of Hiroshima, where a banquet is held at the mayor’s office. The holiday is also officially recognized in Toronto, Ontario, although all businesses and government services remain open.

The Dr. Martin Luther King Tribute and Dinner has been held in Wassenaar, The Netherlands since 1986. The event traditionally concludes with crowds singing the Civil Rights Movement anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

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