From the African American Registry

The official holiday, on the third Monday of January, began in 1986. It was the first new American holiday since 1948, when Memorial Day was created.

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The 15-year campaign for a national holiday recognizing Dr. King was carried out by Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Shirley Chisholm of New York. Neither of them appears in this picture of President Reagan signing the bill.

Also it was only the second national holiday in the twentieth century (the other was Veterans Day). King is the only American besides George Washington to have a national holiday designated for his birthday (those of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and others are celebrated in some states but not nationwide).

Internationally, King was one of the few social leaders of any country to be honored with a holiday (Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday is observed in India). Such standing by a member of a country’s racial minority is almost unheard of. Usually, the honor is reserved for military or religious figures. When President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating the holiday, it marked the end of a persistent, highly organized lobbying effort across the nation that lasted 15 years.

It took bipartisan support to overcome the opposition of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, who called King a Communist, and President Reagan’s lukewarm feelings toward the legislation….

[R]esponding to criticism that the holiday would be too close to the Christmas/New Year’s week, its observance [was moved] to the third Monday of the month. The notion of a three-day weekend, plus the fact that the third Monday (at the time) followed Super Bowl Sunday, helped push the measure through.