What goes into making a Federal holiday: Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today’s post in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day was written and researched by Gina Resetter and Kelly Barton, Archivists at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.


What goes into making a federal holiday? Sometimes, more than one would expect.

On November 2, 1983 President Reagan signed into law the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. day as a federal holiday to honor an American visionary, civil rights activist, and champion of the downtrodden. Many states celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day before its federal recognition in 1983.  Within President Reagan’s administration there was much debate about the best way to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Looking through our documents, the Reagan administration was concerned with the economic impact of creating a federal holiday, among other things. In fact, a statement of Administration Policy from July 29, 1983 states cites the creation of a paid holiday and closing down of government offices as the reason to oppose the creation of the holiday. Other reasons the Administration opposed creating a holiday was Dr. King’s apparent ties to Communism, and the lack of holidays for other important figures in American history.

However, momentum was building for a federal commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory in the form of a holiday. Coretta Scott King wrote a letter herself to President Reagan requesting he consider setting a day aside to honor her husband’s legacy.

Seeing the growing support for the federal holiday, the Reagan Administration examined the many different ways Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory could be honored other than with a paid holiday. Options suggested included: discontinuing the extra day of paid leave for Christmas and New Year; earmarking the money the government would lose in having a paid holiday and put it towards a cause Dr. King pursued in his life such as job training and adult illiteracy; creating an unpaid holiday, and more.


Ultimately, President Reagan embraced the holiday.  After Congress passed H.R. 3706, which had been introduced by Indiana Representative Katie Hall with 108 co-sponsors, President Reagan signed the bill on November 2, 1983, surrounded by Dr. King, Jr.’s family in the Rose Garden.  The first official Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated January 20, 1986.  The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library remembers the life and actions of Dr. King. You can read more about the discussion and debate of creating this federal holiday at http://presidentialtimeline.org/.

4 thoughts on “What goes into making a Federal holiday: Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

  1. Who can forget the staunch opposition from Jesse Helms based on accusations of ties to communism, and the FBI files containing King’s alleged activities?

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