The following is a guest post by Daniel T. Fleming, author of Living the Dream: The Contested History of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
On January 20, 1986, the United States celebrated the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Half a million people filled the streets of downtown Atlanta as the inaugural King Day parade moved along Peachtree Street and into ‘Sweet’ Auburn Avenue. Eight thousand radio stations played excerpts from King’s “I have a Dream” speech and church bells tolled. By night, television networks broadcast a three-city concert, organized by Stevie Wonder. The King Holiday had arrived.
Conceived in grief after King’s assassination on 4 April 1968, King Day became a celebration of perhaps the most consequential American of the 20th Century: Martin Luther King Jr. John Conyers (D-MI) first proposed the holiday in 1968, while Coretta Scott King founded the King Center—a “living memorial”—to keep alive King’s dream. Coretta fought vigorously for the holiday too, and from 1968 to 1983, African Americans and their allies pressured Congress to pass King Holiday legislation.
African American liberals eventually persuaded the House of Representatives, and the likes of Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Rep Jack Kemp (R-NY), to vote yes for the holiday. This pressured the overwhelmingly white and male Senate to vote yes too. Congress voted for the holiday because a majority saw King as a unifying figure, one who brought Black and white Americans together. Congress decided that King was a contemporary hero, historically relevant, and that he appealed to a wide section of the community: Blacks, whites, liberals, conservatives, young, and old.
After Ronald Reagan had reluctantly signed the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Act, on November 2, 1983, Congress established a commission to promote “racial equality and nonviolent social change.” Led by Coretta, the commission strived for an uplifting celebration and following advice from advertising firms, chose “Living the Dream” for the holiday’s promotional theme. Inspirational and media friendly, Living the Dream—like the King Center—signaled a desire to keep King’s activist legacy alive. The theme recalled King’s highest point of fame, 1963 to 1965, when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The first King Holiday thus became part of a triumphant retelling of civil rights movement history. It both celebrated King’s legacy and how far the US had seemingly moved on from legally sanctified racial segregation. Civil rights activists, however, criticized this triumphalist narrative, promoted as it was by Reagan and fellow conservatives, especially Black conservatives like Clarence Pendleton, who Reagan had appointed to the commission. Activists like Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson thought that the holiday was superficial.
The first King Holiday thus became part of a triumphant retelling of civil rights movement history.
Yet the holiday did position the name and legacy of a Black man on American calendars. This transformative moment in American memorialization meant that even in death, King continued to challenge racism and segregation. The clearest illustration of this challenge was seen on southern calendars that glorified the Confederate States of America with holidays honoring Robert E. Lee, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. These warriors for white supremacy now shared the calendar with a Black man. In some cases, such as in Virginia, King, Lee, and Jackson shared the same holiday until King surpassed them all when the Lee and Jackson holiday was discontinued in 2020.
The fight for the holiday presaged the Black Lives Matter movement and the current monument wars. It demonstrated that people could fight for both justice and a more representative memorial landscape at the same time. The two aims were not mutually exclusive. In the Black Lives Matter era, the King Holiday speaks to our times, more so than Confederate memorials built on the plinth of white supremacy.
Daniel T. Fleming is lecturer at the University of New South Wales.