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The Song Behind Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial


Did you know it wasn’t until 2000 that every U.S. state observed Martin Luther King Day?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is a federal holiday in the United States celebrated on the third Monday in January. It is a day to remember the civil rights leader’s legacy and to make our own acts of service.

But it took many years, and a long fight, to make this a reality.


In 1968, just four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, people began advocating to make his birthday (January 15th) into a holiday celebrating his life. Michigan Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill with the proposed holiday. Year after year, the bill failed but Conyers and the Congressional Black Caucus did not give up.

 Rally honoring Martin Luther King Jr 1968

A crowd at a rally in 1968 honoring Martin Luther King Jr. after news of his death. Image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Bernard Gotfryd, LC-DIG-gtfy-08314

In the 1980s, it seemed that times were changing. Martin Luther King (MLK) Day finally had a chance. And there's one person we truly have to thank: Stevie Wonder. In 1980, the musician wrote his now famous song “Happy Birthday” to honor Dr. King. Over the upbeat sound of 80s synths, Wonder sang:

I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition

The song’s popularity garnered support for MLK Day across the United States. This popularity was aided by Wonder’s tour and rallies where he performed the song live.

The next time the bill was brought to the floor, it succeeded. In 1983, it passed with a 78-22 vote, and President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law. Reagan was not particularly enthusiastic about the bill (he would have “preferred a non-holiday in King’s honor”) but he could not ignore the growing public support.


It took a while for the new federal holiday to catch on in every state. MLK Day fell around the same time as other state holidays, such as New Hampshire's “Civil Rights Day." Many southern states also combined the holiday with the birthday of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general of the American Civil War. It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states observed the holiday. This was 14 years after the first MLK Day was celebrated and 32 years after Conyers first introduced the bill.

Martin Luther King Jr Pins

Pinback buttons promoting a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. The proposed dates for the holiday were April 4th (the day of his assignation) or January 15th (his birthday).
Image Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

“Happy Birthday” continues to be a popular song today. For many Black families across the USA, it is the preferred song to sing on birthdays. With its joyful sound and meaningful lyrics, it's easy to understand why. The song reflects the long fight it took to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national day of celebration. 

Martin Luther King Day is the only federal holiday designated as a national day of service. You can check out a list of organizations that we'll lend our time to and simple ways kids can uphold Dr. King's dream. Honest History's educational magazines highlight other Black leaders who, like Martin Luther King, overcame barriers to create a more equal future. Keep an eye on our kids magazines and podcast for more stories about fearless change-makers.