On October 19, 1983, the Senate voted to make the third Monday in January a national holiday to commemorate the birth of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. President Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2, and paid warm tribute to Dr. King, saying his words and deeds had “stirred our nation to the very depths of its soul.”

In 1986, the first official year of the holiday, a weeklong schedule of concerts, church services, school activities and parades took place in Atlanta, Washington, New York and other cities across the country. However, while federal offices were closed, fewer than 20% of the nation’s private employers closed for the day, and in following years state governments would continue to argue the merits of a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It wasn’t until 1999 that all 50 states observed the holiday, with Arizona (1992) and New Hampshire (1999) being the last to join in the observance. 

On August 23, 1994, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday and Service Act was signed into law, identifying the national holiday as a day of community service, interracial cooperation and peace.

Together, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission and Corporation for National Service Commission, under the Act, developed the “Community Service Initiative” to bring the goals and the messages of Dr. King directly to all communities. 

In 1995, over 30,000 people reported on their community-based programs. Based on this tremendous response, a more diverse Community Service initiative was planned for 1996. Clearly the concept of service is an idea most Americans endorsed.

Shortly thereafter, a series of public service announcements were produced and distributed across the country. Interest came from traditional service organizations and from over 2,000 federal, state and local governments and private corporations. Private businesses were particularly strong advocates, embracing the service concept and honoring Dr. King by providing many opportunities for their employees to get involved.

In the second year of the initiative, over one million volunteers participated in service projects across the nation. The final results showed that approximately three million hours of volunteer service benefited 2.5 million Americans.

Dr. King’s humanistic philosophy, “an individual has not yet started living until he can rise above narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity,” continues to inspire people from around the country to share a spirit of goodwill and develop community projects benefiting those less fortunate. Reports of these projects keep coming, identifying the creativity, diversity and generosity of an entire nation. 

In 1996, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday expired and remanded its programs and activities to The King Center in Atlanta. Each state and U.S. Territory was asked to officially appoint two representatives or delegates to serve on The King center's "National Holiday Advisory Committee (NHAC)."

The members of the NHAC committee bring strong knowledge, history and experience in building and maintaining the National King Holiday. They advise on the development of program models and facilitate the creation of a strong King Holiday network.

Through the continuous efforts of more than sixty NYS Agency King Liaisons, corporate and community partners, the Observance has evolved into a truly meaningful and educational activity. It serves as a model for numerous states across the country for its proven success in capturing Dr. King’s commitment toward community service, interracial cooperation and anti-violence initiatives. Every year, the State Agency King Liaison Committee's tireless dedication and planning efforts have resulted in several awards and recognitions for the State's Annual Observance.

Image: President Reagan at Signing Ceremony for Martin Luther King Holiday Legislation in the Rose Garden with Coretta Scott King. White House Photographic Collection, National Archives and Records Administration.