How we got MLK Day

My friend (and former Institute board member) William P. Jones has a good piece in The Nation, showing how the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday largely owes its roots to the labor movement and working-class agitation:

Given the corporate sponsorship of contemporary King day celebrations, it may come as a surprise that the holiday began as a union demand in contract negotiations. In 1968, just four days after King's assassination, Representative John Conyers introduced a bill to make the slain leader's birthday a national holiday. The bill would likely have died in committee, and stayed buried, had it not been for thousands of working-class Americans--most of them black, but also white, Asian and Latino--who risked their jobs over the next fifteen years to demand the right to honor a man they viewed as a working-class hero.

After Congress stalled for several years (the holiday wouldn't arrive until 1983, when Reagan reluctantly signed it into law), black workers and their allies took matters into their own hands. As Powell relates, New York union leader Cleveland Robinson told a 1969 rally that "We don't want anyone to believe we hope Congress will do this. We're just sayin', us black people in America just ain't gonna work on that day anymore."

By 1973, with the King holiday bill still languishing in Congress, working-class blacks were doing just what Robinson recommended. "I have been told by people in plant after plant in Detroit," Conyers testified in Congress that year, "that on January 15th, if it is not in the bargaining contract, one does not come to work anyway. It is a holiday already."

This is the story of reform in America. Rarely does it come from the top -- it comes from thousands or millions of people, taking action in an organized way until the system can no longer ignore their demands.

Winning a King holiday may seem mundane today, but it was a huge battle at the time. Among the most vociferous opponents: Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS), who opposed the holiday in 1983 and voted to de-fund it in 1994 -- and is now seeking to rehabilitate his political career.