Honoring King’s Legacy Across the States

Civic leaders across the country have organized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations—from marches to musical performances—to recognize the civil rights activist today, the third Monday in January.

Each celebration is different. Similarly, each state can tell a different story about the origins of the holiday. Some states, in fact, even call the holiday by a slightly different name, recognizing Confederate leader Robert E. Lee on the same day or honoring all individuals who have fought for justice.

In Wyoming, state Sen. Harriett Elizabeth “Liz” Byrd, who died in January 2015 at age 88, sponsored a bill to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday in the state nine times before it was recognized in 1991.

Byrd’s son, Wyoming state Rep. James Byrd, said she tore down a lot of barriers in her nearly nine decades. She was the first African American elected to the Senate and the first full-time black schoolteacher in Wyoming. Byrd said his mother refused to give up before the holiday became a reality in her native state of Wyoming, especially since the state is nicknamed The Equality State.

“She knew that there were good people inside the state with good hearts,” Byrd said. 

Byrd said his mother met pushback for a lot of reasons—including the cost of implementing another state holiday and sentiment that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shouldn’t receive sole recognition—but the holiday was eventually enacted as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./Equality Day as a compromise to recognize anyone who has fought for equality. Byrd said his mother was content with the holiday and made him promise not to attempt to get the name changed in the legislature.

Churches and organizations in the state hold programs each year that recognize King, and the name has meant little to those celebrations.

In at least five other states, the King holiday is observed alongside another holiday. Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi celebrate Robert E. Lee’s Birthday on the same day as the King holiday. Idaho has Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day, and New Hampshire has Dr. Martin Luther King Jr./Civil Rights Day.

The state holidays that simultaneously recognize Lee and King have been debated for years. Earlier this month, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he hopes the legislature will end the joint holiday by 2017, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The joint holiday was part of a compromise when the King holiday was established in Arkansas in the 1980s.

“It’s important that that day be distinguished and separate and focused on that civil rights struggle and what (King) personally did in that effort, the great leader that he was during that cause,” Hutchinson said in a news conference, according to the newspaper.

For three decades after King was assassinated in 1968, state and civil rights leaders fought for a King holiday. Seventeen states had King holidays when the first national King holiday—signed into law by President Reagan in 1983—was observed on Jan. 20, 1986, according to The King Center in Atlanta. 

Illinois was the first state to observe a King holiday in the 1970s. Chicago Public Library records attribute the King holiday in Illinois to Harold Washington, an Illinois state legislator who later pushed for a national holiday as a member of Congress. 

The push for state holidays continued after the national holiday was instituted. In 1999, New Hampshire became the last state to adopt a King holiday.

The national holiday was still new when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially created in King’s home state.

Georgia state Rep. Calvin Smyre, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1974, authored legislation in the 1980s to make King’s birthday a state holiday. Smyre, who is still a state representative, is currently leading efforts to have a King statue erected at the Georgia State Capitol. He expects a statue will be erected by 2017.

Georgia, where King was born and grew up, was overdue for a state holiday, Smyre said. “It was only fitting that we do it,” he said. 

Smyre said some people did not see the need for a King holiday, but the legislation passed because it had the support of the then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris, who signed the bill in 1984.

According to a New York Times story published April 4, 1984, the legislation that passed in Georgia was a compromise measure that made all federal holidays, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, state holidays as well.

“It isn’t everything we wanted, and I feel it should have been done a long time ago,” said Dexter King, youngest son of Dr. King, in the New York Times article. “But I’m basically happy.” 

Smyre said the King holiday had been introduced in Georgia for almost 20 years before it became a reality. Now, in Georgia and every other state, many offices close as many citizens get the day off work to pause and honor a legacy.