Celebrate Martin Luther King Day on January 15th

Dan Bryan, February 15 2015

Would we celebrate Christmas on December 21st? Would we as Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 1st or July 7th? Of course not. Yet every year we do something almost as strange when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

How many people even know Martin Luther King's actual birthday? I certainly didn't, until I took the effort to look it up. King was born on January 15, 1929. Thus, January 15th is the proper day for his holiday. Instead, it falls on the third Monday of January, irregardless of how close to King's actual birthday it might be.

The Uniform Monday Holiday Act

The reason for this incongruous state of affairs is a specific federal law, passed in 1971. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved four holidays from fixed calendar dates to the nearest Monday. This was the product of much Congressional negotiation and compromise. Certain, more important holidays like Christmas and Independence Day were exempted. When King's birthday was made a holiday in 1983, however, it was placed on the Uniform Monday Holiday schedule.

The Accomplishments and Legacy of Martin Luther King

Let's review what Martin Luther King actually accomplished with his life. Across the South for over ten years he agitated against Jim Crow legislation and public segregation. He was arrested 30 times. The FBI placed him under constant surveillance. Conservatives across the United States called him a Communist. Black radicals decried his methods as accommodationist and ineffectual. He was dead by the age of forty, and in his wake the United States has been immeasurably improved.

Yet his birthday is honored as a second-tier holiday -- one of the "Monday holidays" in place to give government employees (and a minority of private-sector workers) a three-day weekend. It is not in the first-tier of holidays that fall on their natural calendar dates. What does this mean for the legacy of Martin Luther King? Is this the right way to honor a great man?

The Irony of the Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day Controversy

A few states combine Martin Luther King Jr. Day with the birthday of Robert E. Lee, in a somewhat cantankerous gesture1 against the spirit of its establishment. Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi all celebrate some version of "Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Birthday". Articles periodically appear to decry this state of affairs.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday is signed into law by President Reagan in 1983.

Ironically however, under the federal law for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the holiday is actually celebrated, on most years, nearer to Robert E. Lee's Birthday than to Martin Luther King's. For Lee was born on January 19th, King on January 15th, and the holiday can fall at any point between January 15-21. Surely this absurdity can point to some flaw in the Monday Holiday system.

1 - Virginia has a holiday celebrating Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, but on a different day from the Martin Luther King holiday. This seems a fair way to honor all parties involved.

Other Affected Holidays -- Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, etc.

Washington's Birthday (February 22) was famously affected by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, to the point that the holiday is now never celebrated on George Washington's actual birthday and has been colloquially renamed to Presidents' Day.

So why was this act passed? The benefits touted included increased tourism and family togetherness time from the increase of three-day weekends. Business and labor groups both generally supported the change.

Unfortunately, these rationales entirely subvert the point of having such holidays in the first place, by implicitly pronouncing them to be of lesser value than "real holidays" like Independence Day, New Year's, or Christmas. In fact, it was political agitation by many veterans' and patriotic groups that kept July 4th in its current honored position. There was a similar outcry for Washington's Birthday at the time, and only through such political maneuvering as arguing that a new date would also honor Abraham Lincoln (February 12) was the current Presidents' Day established.

We do no favor to the legacies of Martin Luther King or George Washington so long as this current state of affairs remains. Washington's Birthday should be celebrated on February 22nd, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day should be celebrated on January 15th.


Related Topics

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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