Inside the road to making MLK Day a federal holiday

CHICAGO (WGN) — Although the campaign for a national holiday was ignited shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, it took time and persistence before it was officially observed in 1986.

Rev. Rich Redman said it all started with a song.

“It all started with Stevie Wonder; I mean that song just swept the nation,” he said.

Redman refers to Wonder’s 1980 hit “Happy Birthday,” which was dedicated to nationalizing King’s birthday.

At the time, Redmond served as a PR director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chicago Southside branch. During an interview with Stevie Wonder, he asked the music icon how he could get on board to help nationalize King’s birthday strategically.

“After we went off air, he gave me a contact to a person he hired, another publicist out of Washington D.C. by the name of O’Field Dukes,” Redmond recalled.

From there, Redmond quickly started organizing momentum in Chicago as a national co-strategist working to make King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday.

While garnering support in the city, the Congressional Black Caucus continued to pursue the legislation in D.C. To learn more, Redmond connected with the late Harold Washington — who served as a state lawmaker and congressman before he was elected mayor of Chicago.

“In 1968, Harold Washington actually sponsored a bill in the Illinois Assembly. He was state representative at the time and in that sponsorship he was able to make Illinois the first state in the union to have a holiday,” Redmond said.

In an effort to dig deeper and figure out how to consolidate what other states were doing to celebrate King, Redman said he reached out to the Dr. King Foundation in Atlanta for guidance. He received a call back from Coretta Scott King.

“And she says to me, ‘I understand you want information about the national effort to bring about my late husband’s birthday as a holiday,'” he said. “‘Yes ma’am, whatever you could get me.'”

From there, King met with Redmond on a trip to Chicago in November 1980.

“She says, ‘This holiday has to represent more than just a celebration. It’s got to be a commemoration it’s got to bring up the things to help teach our children,” Redman said. “So she gave me three things to write into the national strategy.”

Education was first. Secondly, King’s vision included commemorating the many people who worked tirelessly in the fight for civil rights. And last but not least — she hoped people would simply take time to help one another.

Once receiving the instructions from King, Redmond incorporated her vision into the national strategy. A few months later, Redmond traveled to D.C. On Jan. 15, 1981 — more than 70,000 people gathered at the National Monument, rallying for a national MLK holiday.

Pushback paralleled the impetus for change.

“It was a question as to why him? This man changed the conscience of this country, he showed unselfishness, he showed love, he showed what kind of spirit this country should adopt,” Redmond said.

Eventually, the hard work and persistence paid off. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Katie Hall, of Gary, in 1983.

The first official Martin Luther King Jr. Day was observed on Jan. 20, 1986.

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