What's a holiday for?

Published: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 12:35 a.m.
The acceptance of Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday is now complete. It is in danger of being taken for granted with only passing attention paid to the reason that it is a holiday.
In a way, that is a backhanded compliment showing how far both the day and the country have progressed. It wasn't always thus.
A young black congressman introduced a bill four days after King was assassinated in 1968 to make the civil-rights leader's birthday a national holiday. As a measure of how time has passed, the sponsor, John Conyers of Michigan, is now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, one of the most powerful posts in Congress.
It would take 15 grudging years before Congress acted. One of the more curious objections, that King's Jan. 15 birthday was too close to the Christmas holidays, was resolved by moving it to the third Monday in January.
President Ronald Reagan, originally opposed, said he would sign it ''since they seem bent on making it a national holiday.'' The first observance was in 1986. Then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young said, ''People are not sure what to celebrate. A lot of people are thinking back on the '60s as if it was the Civil War and their town lost.''
It was Reagan himself who put the national stamp on MLK Day by hosting a weeklong series of events leading up to it, peaking at the capital's Martin Luther King Elementary School and welcoming Coretta Scott King to the White House. There was a political calculation there, to be sure, but it was also one great orator honoring another.
While King Day was now a federal holiday, the states had to also bless it, and that came in fits and starts. But by 1991, every state but Arizona had made it a holiday. Faced with boycotts that cost it the Super Bowl, Arizona came around the following year.
There were still some loose ends to wrap up. In 1991, Civil Rights Day in New Hampshire and, in 2000, Human Rights Day in Utah officially became Martin Luther King Day.
And on the day's 21st observance, King's writings - especially I Have A Dream, Letter from Birmingham Jail, I See the Promised Land - are an integral and respected part of the canon of American ideals that define who we are as a people.
There's still that problem of becoming just another three-day weekend. To prevent that, people are urged to dedicate the day to community service and, under the slogan ''A day ON, not a day OFF,'' the U.S. government will tell you how at www.mlkday.gov.
We've got a ways to go, but then we've come a long way.

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