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Art of Compromise: First MLK Holiday Was Result of 15-Year Effort

In this video from the NewsHour archives, Ronald Reagan’s signs into law a bill granting a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Watch Congressional veterans Bob Dole and the late Ted Kennedy — and even a very-young Joe Biden — as they belt out “We Shall Overcome.”

It was a rare sight. Members of Congress standing on the grounds of the White House Rose Garden joined together in song.

The occasion: President Ronald Reagan signing into law a bill that honored Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday recognizing the civil rights leader’s life and contributions to the country.

Despite the singing that fall day in 1983, passing a bill to honor King 15 years after his assassination had been anything but a harmonious effort.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., first introduced legislation to recognize King’s accomplishments four days after the reverend was killed outside a motel in Memphis, Tenn.

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In addition to questions and criticisms over whether King should be honored with a federal holiday, lawmakers argued that it would cost the federal government $18 million in holiday overtime and lost work.

Every year Conyers introduced a bill, but each time the controversial legislation failed to gain consensus within the Congress. The effort would turn into a national campaign championed by the Congressional Black Caucus that included grassroots organizations throughout the country collecting 6 million signatures in support of the holiday.

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In November 1982 then-freshman Rep. Katie Beatrice Hall arrived in Washington after winning a special election to replace a member of Congress who died of a heart attack. She was the first African American woman to represent Indiana in the House of Representatives.

Six months later, as chairwoman of the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee on Census and Population, Hall introduced another bill to honor King.

In her bill, Hall proposed that King be honored on the third Monday in January, rather than a fixed date of Jan. 15, King’s birthday, to prevent government offices from having to open twice in one week.

“Mr. Speaker, the time is before us to show what we believe, that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but at the greatest Nation in this world,” Hall said on the floor of the House on Aug. 2, 1983. “It is America’s turn to say thank you to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it is our duty as elected Representatives to nationalize the tribute.” A dozen other lawmakers spoke in support of her bill.

That day, the House passed the bill by a vote of 338 to 90. On Oct. 19, the Senate passed companion legislation. On Nov. 2, 1983, one year after Hall was sworn into office, Reagan signed the bill into law.

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